I am writing almost all day every day on the book, so precious little blogging taking place. But here are some photos of a stop in Taungoo and a visit to the Elephant Camps.
It’s illegal to ride a bicycle or motorcycle or scooter in Yangon. The rumor on the motorcycle ban is that a General was driving through Yangon a few years back and his car was hit by a motorcycle.
So they were banned.
But it might have been a scooter, the General was in the back seat I guess and he wasn’t sure, so they banned them too, just in case.
No one knows why bicycles are banned, the word for bicycle in Burmese is “set bein” or engine wheels, so maybe it was too close to a motorcycle. But they are banned as well.
Which makes Yangon a funny town and very much unlike Hanoi and its 3 million scooters or Phnom Penh with its seemingly 3 million bicycles, here it is cars and nothing, except me, now on a new Trek mountain bike.
However, the law is never applied to foreigners really, in this time of democratization of Myanmar, or at least, it’s never been applied to me, as I am the only foreigner I have seen on a bike. There is a distinct reticence on the part of traffic cops to do anything to foreigners so I ride my bike everywhere.
I find it refreshing, charming and more than a bit fun in this day and age, to be in a place where being a Westerner on a bike in the middle of the day can create such delight in people, even those same traffic cops, who should be stopping me, but instead often just take off their helmets and when I yell hello, smile and wave me through.
I am careful to only speak English at that moment.
I really enjoy riding around town, through the cars, dodging people, potholes, and new drivers. Despite the 100 degree heat and 75% humidity which I am almost completely immune to now, I can ride my bike and not even sweat anymore.
Imagine being in a tattered old city of a million people, and you’re the only person on a bike, that’s me. But riding during the day, as good as it is, it’s nothing compared to riding at night.
I first learned this riding with a group of twenty or so Burmese who met at the bike shop where I bought my bike; they take off around 10:00 pm on Friday night and convoy through the darkened city. They ride till around 11:30 pm, stop in a tea house for chatting and something to drink and then make it back by midnight.
Yangon at night is a very dark city, with few lights, and even fewer cars. The night markets are lit by single light bulbs and candles, the main streets totally deserted. As the group, or if it’s not Friday, on my own, you can fly down the main roads, twisting and turning around Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which is the one thing always lit up bright in the sky at night.
On your bike at night, you hear the flocks of parrots that still roost in the trees and you have to pay more attention than usual to avoid the massive breaks in the streets and the people walking who can’t see you and you can’t see them.
On your bike at night, you see the underside of the city more at night, the people sleeping in the parks, picking through the trash. I ride down by the river, through the center of town, I often swing by 35th Street where my father’s office was in the 1950s.
I stop and buy water from usually a somewhat shocked small store keeper as this tall sweaty American pulls in on a bicycle. It’s 35 cents for a large bottle of water; I usually go through two a night. When it’s 95 degrees or more during the day, the nights are relatively cool.
I circle the lake, I climb the road by the Pagoda, I cruise down the other side by the Army’s park. Sometimes I stop and say hello to the folks at my favorite restaurant. Sometimes I just pull to the side and listen, to the city as it starts to sleep.
When it’s time to go back to the hotel, I go slowly. I watch the people eating in the streets in the outdoor restaurants, smelling the curries and stir-fry being prepared over the open fires. I pull into the driveway and up to the house. I am staying at a small b&b on Golden Valley Road. The lone night watchman welcomes me back and then watches as I lock the bike up, leave my helmet hanging over the handlebars and head in for a shower.
The cops will all be happy now, all foreigners are off the streets, and safely home.
Things are changing here, some faster than you realize, some not quite as fast as some people would like. Maybe there will be a time when the street are crowded with bicycles, maybe they will crack down and stop even foreigners from riding the few that are around.
But for now, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to ride and see and listen and be the one man in Yangon on a bike at night.
I have made many new friends here, but none funnier than K, a wonderful bundle of energy and charm and humor. He and I might do some business together and I am thinking it’s a good idea just because we would be rich in laughter if not gold as well.
We agreed to go to lunch on Sunday when I stopped by his shop last week; he wanted to take me to the nice hotel downtown. I told him I could do Monday or Tuesday as well, if that was better for him.
“Oh no no no. I like the Sunday lunch best.”
And Sunday it was. We were standing by Mr. K’s very nice new car.
“You come over and you can drive okay?” He smiles at me.
Me I wonder to myself, the steering wheels are on the right side here but you also drive on the right, there’s terrible traffic and few stop lights.
“My nephew is gone for weekend and I can’t drive.” He stops as I laugh and tell him:
“I am not going to drive in Yangon K, no way, it’s crazy here. You have this brand new car and you don’t know how to drive!”
He shakes his head vehemently. “Never, never ever drive. I pick you up. Taxi.”
So at noon on Sunday, he shows up indeed in a taxi and not his beautiful new white car and downtown we head for lunch, to be joined by his friend Errol who is Burmese but I later learn was named Errol in boarding school.
“For Errol Flynn, the actor” he tells me over lunch.
I tell Errol the story of the car and driving and then learn the truth as my friend explains more.
“Police are terrible here, they would be very mean to me and get me upset, it would not be good.”
Then I understand. To stay on the right side of the law, to never have to answer too many questions about his business and his work, my friend has made a strategic decision.
Because no driving means there’s never even the chance you’ll get stopped while driving. Never getting stopped driving means never having the chance of a problem with the police. So no matter how nice your new car is, and how good you might look behind the wheel, you never ever drive.
Yes, indeed, K is funny and cordial beyond words, but he is also savvy, which is a skill many have needed here to survive. I am equally sure he well knows how to drive, it’s just well, not something he can risk doing here.
K tells the story without bitterness and he certainly is not complaining. He’s just a man who figured out long ago that driving was something that would never, ever be worth the risk.
When you consider it, closely, with fresh eyes, on a bridge in Paris one evening, the ability to forecast the weather is a remarkable gift. I mean, not how one does it now, with computer models and Doppler radar, but before, when men, and women I suppose, could just look at the sky or the sea, and say:
It feels like rain.
Or snow, or wind, or whatever is coming over the horizon towards you but is of yet unseen. Once upon a time, I suppose, if you could do that, and be right more than wrong, you were powerful, dominant, the talk of the town, or village, or valley, or wherever you happened to be.
I stopped on the bridge over the River Seine, on the way to meet a friend for coffee, I stopped not because the view was new to me or especially unique for Paris, no, I stopped there because the sky was darker than it should have been if one considers the time of day it was, early.
I also stopped because not only was the sky darker than I thought realistic really for four in the afternoon, but the despair of the sky itself stopped me, the torment it was enduring and sharing with anyone who thought to stop and look.
The sky was frothing in anger, churning a multitude of shades of black, twisting, turning, spinning, seemingly out of control and liable to collapse at any moment into a fit of rain, thunder, lightning. Hail was not out of the question.
And yet, in the middle of all that torment, the sky also wanted to share the thought, hold on, there is hope my fellow traveler, it will not always be this dark, this twisted this way, let me show you, look over there to the South, the perfect bright white light, it is coming your way.
Pause if you must a moment to admire and ponder but keep walking as soon the light will be here and all will be calm again.
My half-brother Stuart told me of an old quote, “a life unexamined isn’t worth living” he wasn’t sure who it was from but we both liked it. It seemed to be the right motto for my journey.
But what they don’t tell you is the process of examining stirs up storms, in you and others. I should note, as I like to, to make sure no one feels sorry for me, crossing the bridge in Paris in the afternoon, I find that highly unlikely, but just in case, this is something I have chosen and I am blessed to do it.
Nevertheless, Paris turned into not so much into calm moments of reflection and getting deeply re-introduced to the book and the characters within, but a time to walk headfirst into storms on top of storms, wind blowing, rain in my face, cold, dark, lonely.
I ended up having far too many legal letters, far too many lawyer calls, tossing and turning worrying about my children and life, and my ex-wife. For three or four days, I didn’t really sleep at all, removing much of the charm of the City of Lights. I would lie in bed, playing positive outcomes to all that was running through my mind, hoping for sleep and peace.
It rarely came.
Mercifully, there is a wonderful yoga studio in Paris, owned by two new found friends. I met a wonderful young American woman living in Paris with her French boyfriend. I had friends visit both weekends and that made it bearable, but barely so.
Which is a shame, after all, it is Paris, but then again, the chance to examine, make right, clean up, ponder, walk, wonder, is a remarkable one. So now, tired, worn out, drained again by life and challenges seen and unseen, unsure whether it will clear, or continue to storm, I am leaving again for Burma.
I will keep moving, walking, I will look and love the storms and their colors and their anger, almost as much as I will love the light when the wind blows it my way.
If you type in ‘openure’ into dictionary.com, it will tell you, upon the press of the search button, that there are ‘no results found.’ So on a cool Paris morning, join me in the celebration of a new word. It’s the third or fourth word I have come up with, or been involved in, the creation of. ”Manufactroversy” is Max’s word, but we were working together at the time and it’s a great word. “Yogabation” is one I came up on my own about a certain woman and that brings me to today’s new word, openure.
Closure, you see, is an often-bandied-about word that implies you are able to take your heart, your soul, you, and when the three of you have been exposed to heartache, tragedy, love, loss, that somehow there comes a point where you can close the door on it, shut it tight, throw away the key and somehow, it’s then, just at that moment, it’s in the past and you have “closure.”
“Time heals all wounds” they say, they who haven’t had their heart ripped out, they who have never loved too much, they are wrong. Time doesn’t heal all wounds; what time does is take the raw open wound, and slowly, make it a scab then a scar and the scar fades but it never is completely gone or healed.
I returned to the States for the holidays, I had hoped that my kids would be allowed to come to Burma to see their grandfather’s house, but their mother disagreed, so I flew backwards to pause a moment and now, am headed back.
The break in the States was jarring on many levels, to go from Yangon where you are happy if you have power all day and be dropped in the commercialism of Christmas in Boston, it might be the greatest opposite experience you can imagine.
But it was a remarkable time of “openure” because there have been not one, not two but three lingering wounds currently in my life, in addition to the gaping lingering wound of my father’s death for which I am now seeing openure.
Which brings me to the door.
In Bagan, in the Ananda Temple, there are teak doors, each carved from a single tree, single massive pieces of wood, some thirty, thirty five feet high, and while at one point perhaps they would swing open and close, now they are stuck permanently open.
I was in love with a woman who was in love with me as well, but, for her, the timing seemed wrong, or maybe it really was wrong. I am more romantic than that. Life is so short that when you find love, I think you have to put love first, but for her, it wasn’t quite to be that way. I saw her when I was in Boston, having thought of her every day of my journey last fall. The good was she still loves me. The bad was she still loves me. And it wasn’t closure when she walked out the door and down the hall, it was openure because having seen her, I am now open again.
Imagine a glass pitcher where you can see the water in it. If the pitcher is full, you can’t put more water in it, but as you pour the water out, then you are open to more.
The second moment was a woman who I was deeply involved with who has been lingering around me, and has made me wonder, and I have had made her wonder as well. She said something to me that all my friends, especially all my woman friends, were shocked at, and shocked me as well. It was deeply self-absorbed and after your friends have been telling you a person is this or that and you can’t see it, then you do, in technicolor brilliance, you are able to pour the water out.
Finally, for years, I have tried to deal calmly and fairly with the mother of my children, out of love for them and respect for her. But, for some people, the more you give, the more they take, and the less you have and the more they demand. Again, there was a moment of perfect clarity and I walked away, and I will never look back or help again like I used to.
So here in a cool gray Paris, working hard on the book, there is openure in the above. The pitcher is empty, not because people are telling me it should be, but because I saw for myself. In that, there is some sadness, things that flew in and around me for years are now quietly boxed on the shelf.
An empty glass pitcher stands on the countertop. Clear, it’s for everyone to see, but most importantly, it is finally open again.
I’ll write more about what it was like to be back, and the jarring re-entry into the United States. But, today, as I sit in the freezing cold, I am starting to plan my return for the second half of the journey. I leave next Wednesday night and will spend close to two months back in Burma, part of it with my friend Aung Ngwe, featured here from last November.
The journey is about to re-start and more writing will soon commence.
Writing has always come easy to me, the words flow, the thoughts link, sometimes I feel I write well, sometimes I don’t write as well as I wish but I can always write and write and write. It’s what got me through my first career as a copywriter in advertising. It is a given in me.
More often than I care to admit, I fall back on the written word, in relationships, work, life, it may be a weakness of mine in a way, but I can write better than I can share thoughts verbally. Perhaps it’s easier for me to form my thoughts and opinions without the other person injecting theirs, or perhaps, it’s that I like the process of writing and tweaking and re-writing when, of course, the spoken word is always just spoken once.
On this trip, I realized that there is a third reason, my father shared himself in his letters, many of which I have read, he always traveled with a typewriter, sending crisply written notes from faraway hotels, often noting he was in his room, listening to jazz, working and writing away.
Whatever my fondness for them, writing a long letter to someone especially in this day and age is the most intimate way I know of to share myself with them and the recipient is often surprised.
I remember clearly, a beautiful woman I loved, folding a letter into her purse.
“No one ever wrote me a love letter before.”
But now, as I prepare to leave Burma and head home for Christmas, for my children, for organizing and paying bills, even though I know I will be back on February 5th, I have been struck quiet, calm, mute. It’s as if there is too much to share, to much to write to much to talk about and in that, there ends up nothing.
The circuits have been overwhelmed, the soul over-plenished, the world overly-perfect and calm and in that, there is nothing to say, the words don’t flow as they usually do, I have had no choice but to simply be.
Partially, it’s that I have unfolded myself, opened up and peered deep down inside, past the layers, the conventional me, and looked at who I really am, where I am from, thought about life, death, legends, truths, lies, my father, my mother, all the parts that make up my life, in a way I suspect few are ever able to do. While parts of it were impossibly hard, it was also one of the greatest blessings of my life to be able to do this.
I was at times overwhelmed at what I found and saw, and the omens and the signs, and the impossible worked out easily, from meeting Daw Aung Suu Kyi, to seeing my father’s house, having the chance to stand outside the hospital he died on the 28th anniversary of his death, to sitting as President Obama spoke, feeling the wood floors of Jim Thompson’s house under my bare feet, floating in a balloon above Bagan, there is so much that came my way, so many people that shared the journey with me.
For the first time in my life, I feel deeply calm and connected. I feel as if I reached inside somewhere unseen in a place I always knew was there, I pulled out the bullet and then watch the wound heal over until now I am stronger than before, stronger than I have ever been.
After my mother died, for the first time in years, I heard my father come to me, and before I got here, this was his part of the world, and Burma was his land. I heard him tell me to come, to walk, ride the trains, hop on a bicycle, see where the winds blew and I did.
Now I understand what he was telling me, what he wanted me to see, what he wants me to be, what he wants me to do. I slowly began to understand over the last month, in Yangon, in Moulmein, on the lake, and as I walked Bagan, and Kalaw and Keng Tung.
It was as if, he knew what I missed growing up without him, the mistakes I made, the times I could have used him and he decided to make it up to me, and he did.
For a year, I heard his voice all the time, when I thought about not going, not seeking, not finding, not taking this moment, this journey.
Yesterday I sat with U James at his house and as we shared our stories, his of his hero mother, of his company and of his former driver, now brother-in-law, the richest man in Burma. I told him of my father, my father’s journey and death.
“You are a good son, you follow your father, you complete his journey, he started on a path and he can not finish it, and now it is your path, good son.” At this point, he paused, smiled deeply, and then just said, simply:
“I see the omens too, I see that you being here, that is the spirits helping us, and I will listen like you listened and I will help you. I will help you.”
And I know he will.
Last night, my last night here after a month, I sat at Shwedagon Pagoda, in the dark, the gold pagoda shimmering in the lights flickered and shining in the lights of the thousands of candles, that had been lit since the sun set, the three thousand year old pagodo dancing in the Yangon night.
I was the only foreigner I saw as I sat down on the marble, feet crossed under me. Closing my eyes, the first thing you hear is the chanting of the monks, low, constant, almost like they aren’t breathing but just pouring the words of Buddha out of them in a constant stream, then you hear the whispers of those circling the pagoda, the shuffling of their feet, then after that, it’s scattered sounds, a car honk down the street, the cry of a child, a bird taking flight.
The marble was cool beneath me, solid, around and above me the night air of Burma is cooler, calmer but still hot and moist. You feel as if you can hear the hundreds of candles you saw as you shut your eyes, you smell the wax burning and the incense. Someone, somewhere, makes a wish and rings the bell.
Slowly even this quiet around you, this peace, fades farther and farther, your breathing becomes louder, becomes you and you feel as if you can sit forever, and you want to, to see what it would be like to sleep like this, wake like this, be here forever.
I sat there, just breathing for almost an hour. I opened my eyes to even more candles, even more people gently shuffling around, the golden Buddhas, the neon lights, the chanting, then as I stood up, the smoke of the candles and the incense blew into me.
The nights in Yangon, unlike every major city in Southeast Asia are still clear, with stars, and you could see the smoke of the incense twist and turn, up into the sky and over and around the Pagoda.
Standing there, I realized, with a smile, that it had been days, maybe weeks since I had heard my father, here somehow, my father had become quiet again. He had, at some point, while I was here, let go and, like the smoke, had drifted up and away into the Burmese night.
28 years of missing and longing and wondering and thinking, 28 years, sometime, somewhere between when I left Boston on September 27 and now, it had disappeared and in its place, there was a calmness, a peace I am not sure I had ever known.
I looked up one more time at the Yangon night, it was quiet, outside and in. The marble under my bare feet even cooler now in the night, I slowly began to join the procession circling the Pagoda walking.
The journey isn’t over, there are places to see, things to learn, property records to check, and much more, but while my father will always be there, now, he is coming with me on my journey.
I am no longer a traveler on his, the voyage is mine, even if he started it without me, I will finish it with him which is I now realize, what he wanted all along.
This is my country now, my land, his last gift to me.
I smiled in the Yangon night as I walked down the marble steps, to pick up my shoes and head to the hotel, my father had one last chance to help, one more thing to show me, one final thing to whisper in my ear, before he floated away again.
To his eternal credit, he did.
And to mine, I listened.
Apay, ajan kjei zu tin ba de.