That I hope to forget as quickly as possible in 2011:
Or, how I learned to stop worrying and completely lose respect for proponents of Intelligent Design theory.
I found this disgusting little monster stuffed and safely caged behind class at the charmingly out-of-date Horniman Museum the other day. I tried my best to draw it accurately because I thought it was so weird. It is called a tenrec, and it is an ACTUAL ANIMAL that EXISTS on PLANET EARTH! Ugh!
In the Wikipedia entry, the tenrec isn’t so bad looking. It’s actually kind of cute, in a pitifully ugly kind of way. But the real thing that I beheld at the Horniman (which actually may have been a different species) was utterly demonic. Why oh why would God – whoop, I mean why would an intelligent designer ever think to make something so hideous?! There are two explanations:
- The creator of all life on earth is cruel, disturbed, and/or artistically impaired.
- There is no creator of all life on earth.
Take your pick!
It’s often said that Eskimos have 50, 100, or even 400 words for snow, compared to English’s one, but this is not so. In the first place, there is more than one English word for snow in various states (ice, slush, crust, sleet, hail, snowflakes, powder, etc.). Second, it seems that out of all the languages of Eskimo groups, there are no more than four root-words for snow altogehter…. The number of basic word stems is relatively small but the number of ways of qualifying them is virtually unlimited. Inuit has more than 400 affixes, but only one prefix. Thus, it has many ‘derived words’ as in the English ‘anti-dis-establish-ment-arian-ism.’
John Lloyd, The Book of General Ignorance
Last Sunday evening, it began to snow. It snowed all through the night, a thick but gentle blizzard, and in the morning Orpington was covered in an eight-inch-thick duvet of heavy white flakes. Apparently, even though English winters are cold and wet, this is rare; it hadn’t snowed this much in greater London in two decades. And since it doesn’t happen very often, the powers that be were unprepared and under-equipped to melt the slush fast enough to keep the city running. Motorists shied away from slippery roads, and buses and trains across the southeast were canceled; no big deal for jobless me, but Laura got to take a snow day.
I was up till three in the morning the previous night watching the Super Bowl, so I slept in, while Laura wasted no time to frolic and snap photos.
When I finally rolled out of bed, I went down to lend a hand shoveling the driveway. In lieu of show shovels (which most people in England don’t own), we had to resort to badminton rackets, brooms, garden shovels, and spatulas to clear a path for the car. I hadn’t shovelled snow in probably seven years, but it came back to me like riding a bike; I don’t mean to boast, but I shovelled that snow like a champ. I knew that it was easier to push the snow than to toss it, and I knew to scrape up the stuck bits so they don’t turn to ice later on. I basked in the admiration of my English family, feeling as though I possessed a sort of mystical knowledge passed down from Wisconsinite to Wisconsinite.
Once the driveway was clear (for the time being, anyway – the snow continued to fall until that night), Laura and I went around back to make a snowman. The snow wasn’t wet enough to roll a proper snowball for the base, so we had to pile it up and then pack it down in an arduous process that made our snowman’s body look a bit like a fat parsnip. But when we got the head on and decked him out in a hat, scarf, shallot eyes, sage eyebrows, and the traditional carrot nose, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment and affection towards our snowy friend. The occasion called for hot chocolate.
We were out of hot chocolate, but a bowl of soup served as a fine surrogate. The whole day was quite nostalgic, and it made me realize that snow is just as much a cultural thing as it is a meteorological thing.
P.S.: Don’t you like my clever snow pun in the title? I was debating between that, “There’s Snow Business Like Snow Business,” and “Snow Buttons on Your Underwear.”
Oh and now you’ve had your fun
Under an air-conditioned sun
It’s burned into your eyes,
Left you plain and left behind
I see them rise and fall
Into the jaws of a pestilent love
This trip had a way of oscillating between utterly, desperately, I-want-to-go-home awful and breathtakingly, deliriously, I-never-want-to-leave wonderful; for every boring-ass Buddha there is a mercilessly flavorful curry; for every mountain of monkey poo there is a ride in a beautiful balloon. On rare occasions, these lows and highs happened simultaneously.
We touched down in Heho around four in the afternoon. It was a joy to get out of Kyaing Tong, especially since I was in the early stages of what would prove to be an ugly bout of Montezuma’s revenge (Thibaw‘s revenge?). I was feeling alright at the moment – the view of the surrounding area was lovely, and when we got to the car, a pack of strange men hustled towards us, and began massaging us. It was unsolicited, and weird, but damn did it feel good. At least, it did at the time – but soon I would come to feel nothing but remorse and anger for paying them 7000 kyats.
The drive to Pindaya was beautiful, in an unexpected way – the landscape would not have looked at all out of place in southwestern England, or central Wisconsin. Rolling hills, a quilt of crops – yellow and ochre, green and red. Cotton candy clouds. I wish I had asked the driver to pull over, like the van full of Japanese tourists ahead of us had done, so that I could take photos.
But I just wanted to get to the hotel as fast as possible. My tract was buckling and convulsing as we drove on; a war was being waged as savage microbes fought to colonize my insides. The typically bumpy Burmese road (not something one gets used to quickly, as it turns out) didn’t help the situation, and neither did that massage. That massage – I don’t know what those people did to me, those horrible little con men, but my muscles have never felt worse. It started as an ache, a patch of discomfort somewhere between my shoulders, and then it expanded into an encompassing, disquieting, pulsing pain throughout my upper back that caused me to sweat, glare at our guide, and curse this rotten trip, curse this vulnerable body, curse this insufferable country.
It was dark when we got to the hotel. I took six Pepto Bismols and three paracetamols, ate a plate of plain white rice, drank a glass of rice whiskey and went to bed. Tomorrow, I decided, would be much better.
At least until the night I spent vomiting and defecating into a toilet that wouldn’t flush in a millipede-infested treehouse in the middle of a jungle in southern Thailand, that drive to Pindaya was the nadir of my trip. I was in pain from that regrettable massage for a while longer, but otherwise the rest of the week was just lovely:
A cave of eight thousand Buddhas, a stunning demonstration of traditional paper and parasol making, and a trek through the mountains near Kalaw on a clear day.
Next stop, Inle Lake: calm, glassy water filling a wide-open valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains, many capped with the distinctive brown patchwork and green terraces of hill tribe agriculture. But down here, the people live on the water – literally. Houses, shops, restaurants, markets, and resorts built on stilts hover just above the water. Transportation is by boat. Schoolkids row their way home at the end of the day, as fishermen pull in their final catches; there are no lights on the water, so it’s important to be home by sundown.
It’s amazing, the resources the people here have found in this lake – obviously there is seaweed, and seafood (lakeweed, and lakefood?); but also lotuses, prized not only for their blossoms but for their stems, which contain a bundle of strong, thin fibers that are woven into beautiful and durable (and expensive) fabrics.
And then there are the tomatoes – possibly the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, and grown in an ingenious way. Hedges of buoyant seaweed are lined up neatly atop the water, then soil and compost is layered on top of the seaweed, then tomatoes are sown in the soil. Little floating farms, bringing forth the sweetest, savoriest, sauciest tomatoes. There must be something in the water.
And then it was onto Ngapali: this was the much-awaited “vacation” portion of the trip. In the four and half weeks since I started my trip in Taiwan, I hadn’t had a single day off – in fact, I had barely had an afternoon off. The trip had been non-stop sightseeing, non-stop hotel inspections, and non-stop yammering from our guides until our two days in Ngapali. No guides. No temples. No Buddhas. No bumpy drives. And we only had to see five hotels and we could do that whenever we wanted to – so it was time to relax.
(I’m afraid I may have used too many superlatives in these posts about Burma, so this is the last one, I promise:) Ngapali is the most amazing beach I’ve ever seen. Now, I haven’t even been to that many beaches, so I suppose that isn’t that great of an endorsement, but I should mention that I don’t even like beaches very much – too much sand, and you never know what’s gonna brush up against you in the water (jellyfish, kelp, fast food containers, children… ugh). But I liked Ngapali. I reeeally liked it. The sand – fine, flaky, and ivory in color. The water – crystal in your hand, and so delightfully warm. Perfect weather. Gorgeous sunsets. And the best part? No people.
I actually feel a bit conflicted just telling people about Ngapali. One one hand, I feel like people need to know about this beach; on the other hand, I don’t want anybody to go there. But if you do go, you have to get out onto the main road and head to one of the local restaurants for a dinner of fresh, tender grilled squid with an electric sauce of lime, chili, and ginger. (You can thank me later.)
Finally, we flew back to the dusty haze of Yangon, relaxed, tan, and more than a little annoyed that our short break was over. Of course, we didn’t know that we would be stuck in Yangon for the next week with nothing to do while we waited for Thai protesters to leave the airport. In the end, I left Myanmar satisfied, but knowing that I will return.
When they beat on a broken guitar
And on the streets, they reek of tropical charms
The embassies lie in hideous shards
Where tourists snore and decay
When they dance in a reptile blaze
You wear a mask, an equatorial haze
Into the past, a colonial maze
Where there’s no more confetti to throw
“Let’s send him to Burma!” Okay, where is that exactly? And isn’t it called Myanmar now? And isn’t there some reason I’m not supposed to go there? Sure, whatever – I need this job, so who am I to argue? But I really don’t want to be away for Christmas. I’m flying in from Taipei with six hours to kill at Suvarnabhumi. Burger King – a welcome break, then a disappointing break, from Chinese food. Meeting up with Nick, landing at Yangon. The airport is surprisingly modern – the city, not so much, but in the dark it looks a bit like LA. Our hotel is rubbish, the windows don’t shut and there are bugs in the room – but it’s only one night. Gmail is blocked; the military plutocracy makes its presence felt for the first time (but at least they don’t block Facebook, thank goodness).
Driving to Kyaiktiyo with a stop at a WWII cemetery. Lunch – a tasty Chinese stir-fry with peanuts as a starter. These peanuts – they’re unusually crunchy and robust! Bottled water and a flatbed truck ride overflowing with people halfway up the hill to the Golden Rock pavilion (I heard one of them tipped over last week and killed eight people) – then a refreshing hike up the rest of the way. The Golden Rock – huge, and gold. I wonder when it will roll off the cliff and kill a dozen pilgrims, but it’s beautiful in the sunset. A crepe filled with palm sugar and coconut. A dance performed by tribal insurgents. A stunning sunrise. How high up are we, anyway?
Walking, then driving down the mountain – the same guy who carried our suitcases up the mountain on his back carries them down. Wow. I bought some spicy fruit preserves then let myself get ripped off by a flirty banana vendor. What the hell am I doing to do with all these bananas?! The drive to Mawlamyine – impossibly uncomfortable and bumpy through miles and miles of rubber plantations. Half the road isn’t even paved. It’s hard for people to get around, and I suspect the government likes it that way.
Mawlamyine – an hour on the internet at a cafe costs less than 50 cents, and Gmail works here! What the hell, this government is so rubbish they can’t even censor the internet properly. Y’know what else costs less than 50 cents? A glass of draft Myanmar beer! But isn’t it brewed by the government? Who cares? It’s cheap and I’m bored. I’m also starting to get sick of temples (but not Burmese sunsets – yet).
The next day was rubbish. Another torturously bumpy drive, first to a pleasant war cemetery, then to a wholly unpleasant former Japanese onsen and POW camp. If I had known I’d be trudging through a muddy river and sulphuric muck I’d have worn sandals. I’m probably going to get worms. At least lunch was nice – stunningly fresh seafood from Setse Beach. Back to the hotel to get slightly less drunk than I did the night before.
Driving back to Yangon via Bago for six hours – not nearly as horrible as I expected (I was actually able to sleep in the van). More peanuts come with lunch – why are the peanuts in this country so good?! I am getting sick of mosquitoes, and of Buddhas, but these four in Bago are remarkably cool. But not as cool as our hotel tonight in Yangon – The Savoy. Damn, I wish we could stay here for more than twelve hours! This is colonial chic; I wonder how many temples were plundered to decorate this place. And the happy hour is a damn good deal, too, but you call this a Manhattan? I’ll stick to ABC Stout for the rest of the night – one good thing about the British Empire is that it brought extra stout porters to the most unlikely corners of the globe. The sun never sets on decent dark beer.
Waking at 5:00 to catch a 7:00 flight to Bagan. Bye bye Savoy! (Sometimes this job is awesome.) A glimpse of Bagan’s red brick temples from the plane, of what may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life.