Pathways through Burma

Benji tells all

I can remember my first time I toured South East Asia so vividly, the sounds, smells and sights were so overpowering,

it smacked me in the face like a punch from a black belt in karate. The markets were a throng of activity I had never experienced before .and the traffic likewise. My first time through Vietnam and then Cambodia bombarded my senses, nothing prepared my for what was to come.

Such lovely people bargained relentlessly ans incessantly and most of the time I got what I wanted, although most items were so cheap it wasn’t worth bargaining…….just pay up in US dollar and make sure you get your maths right as the vendors reach for the calculator.

Time is ticking down as I plan a trip through Burma ( Myanmar ). Not knowing what to look for there in an air of mystery and intrigue yet unravelled by previous…

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a close up of the road….

My son’s taken to blogging as well …

Benji tells all

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Cruising through the streets of Lismore has never been so ‘cool’.

I’m getting well acquainted with the slow innuendo of the bumpy tarmac and curvaceous round- abouts.

The best thing I have done for myself is buy a motor scooter, they are a joy to ride and are very cheap on fuel.

As a child I loved to ride my BMX  along gravel roads, it was the only mode of transport available……unless you wanted to walk. The same can be said about modern times.

Although it took me a while to earn my licence, including having to ride to Wollongbar,a few too many times to acquire my P plates, It’s almost embarrassing but after trying about 4 times i finally got there. Riding home with a wide grin on my face…..finally i got there!

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Mainly I used my moto at first to go to TAFE twice a week plus to…

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Myanmar is only a few footsteps away

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‘Here’s my last instalment for our Intrepid trip,’ says my son to the Travel agent at Escape Travel before offering a smile of accomplishment.

Just last week I was ahead on the payment stakes. Now I’m sitting on a little padded stool feeling a little underdone; as the traveler with a further grand to pay before my butt has a fully-secured place on both tours.

When beginning negotiations back in March it seemed like a whole pregnancy needed to blossom towards birth before we boarded our first plane out of Brisbane International headed for Yangon via a short airport stop-off at Singapore. Now it feels like we’ve felt the first of our Braxton Hicks contractions.

Perhaps it might eventually feel like we’ve engaged in the long-awaited, final pre-delivery check-up with the gynaecologist when our passports are delivered to the Myanmar Embassy in Canberra; for the payment & official stamping of our tourist visas.

Yet I’ve already given some thought to the packing of that important suitcase. I’ve bought sufficient Earplanes to cover all our flights. And checked out the continuing potency of past injections; even consulted a range of medical professionals about the necessity for antimalarial medications.

‘I’m allergic to doxycycline,’ I say. ‘After telling my doctor I wanted to use it again on a second trip to Vietnam/ Cambodia, I broke out in hives.’

‘Of course Malarone is not covered by the PBS. It’s considered if you can afford to travel, then you can afford the pills to keep you well enough to enjoy the trip,’ says the local pharmacist.

But apart from the expense, the side effects seem numerous & potentially horrendous. Including the onset of psychosis in vulnerable patients. So I will probably opt to cover up (dress modestly) and use bug spray; or else at least stand beside those who spray around DEET products at sunset!

One thing of concern for us now is the present declining value of the Aussie dollar; or specifically our capacity to purchase sufficient American greenbacks over the coming months to plump out our bumbags & travel wallets. We’ve purchased a fair amount between us so far but it’s constantly stated ‘Burma is no longer one of Southeast Asia’s cheap destinations.’ Particularly in Bagan. So there’s the deep concern we haven’t quite got enough to splurge on any ‘add-on’ tours, or to dole out to our travel guides as gratuities.

Yet I read today some comforting news

(at <http://www.lonelyplanet.com/asia/travel-tips-and-articles/77689&gt;):

In January 2013, KBZ and CB banks opened international ATMs throughout Burma. These accept both Visa and Mastercard, and charge a fee of 5000 kyat. The ATMs are a real game-changer for travellers, as it means they no longer have to carry thousands of pristine US dollars into the country to change, or budget their cash load for the entire trip. Western Union also began accepting international funds transfers in January 2013.

 

That’s quite a considerable relief.

As is the fact we’re not travelling through difficult areas … along the borders with Thailand, China and Laos, where clashes between the military and armed groups have occurred; where there is ethnic conflict, banditry and the possibility of coming into contact with unmarked landmines, most pointedly in the Kachin and Shan states; from where tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced internally and to neighbouring countries.

 

Of more import to us as guided Intrepid travellers I guess is that we remember:

  • money is handed over and received with the right hand, while the left hand loosely supports the right arm
  • not to expose our shoulders or knees (as is the cultural practice);
  • to remain guarded in political conversations
  • to smile
  • to use as many Burmese words we learn
  • to buy & consume only bottled water
  • to refrain from touching, because I’m a woman, the golden rock at Mount Kyaiktiyo (even if I’m feeling a little unsteady on my feet, from vertigo)
  • to keep feet firmly on the ground rather than pointed at anything or anyone; though particularly in respect of buddhas & monks

 

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Friday 27th December – Kuang Si Falls & the Mount Phu Si climb

The usual cacophony of contrapuntal cadences rising from the throats of free-roaming roosters welcomes in the morning.

At least we’re grateful it’s not the barking of dogs.

It’s earlier than I first realise;  perhaps because I’m looking at my watch through super-blurry eyes having found it difficult to get off to sleep last night at any time before midnight; or maybe my body clock’s been thrown out of skew after being perhaps otherwise over-stimulated by the amount of goods available at the hundreds of stalls – & the brilliant prettiness of colour & lights  – experienced along the length of the night Market in Sasavangvong Road some hours ago.

Though my eyes begin to focus on the new carry bag I’d purchased for 155,000 kip ($20 Australian) that’s now standing as a less-than-rustic adaptation of a more serious piece of  Hmong checkerboard needlecraft  at the bottom of my bed, & I’m pleased with my decision to choose it rather than any other less individualistic version.

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And while it’s now filled with other former & more recent purchases I realise I’m choosing to buy a selection of orange tonings this journey rather than perhaps the blues I gathered in Hoi An in 2008.

Ben didn’t buy much at all at the Markets. He’d said – & shown by his disinterested ambling at close-enough proximity to the rear of my right shoulder, though never-ever-close-enough-to-touch; nor-too-distant-to-lose-visual-contact –  he’s ‘over the buying experience’  he’d so looked forward to; the one I’d been preparing him for in this ‘best of all places’ to splurge tourist dollars.

Though today he may approach things differently. He’s certain to feel the niggling pressure of the wad of American greenbacks at his belly.

I let him sleep while I spend time on the communal computer,  catching up on the news from home.

He eventually joins me while I’m enjoying an omelette & baguette  in the breakfast pavilion.

He appears to be in a much brighter mood. He orders his meal,  eats, & slurps his Lipton tea from a white cup.

Breakfasts over, we  cruise past the raucous classrooms  up from the guesthouse, in Chao Tonkham Road,

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then turn right into Setthalath Road

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to find  the more established stalls of the Dala Market shopping complex. And though there’s nothing that really interests us ( other than the cute shenanigans of an adorable toddler with a makeshift pram) …

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Ben does manage to buy a navy cap though I decline buying the collection of ten little pouches I gather from a basket of hundreds that are similar in concept to my Cambodian hand-stitched camera case; because, firstly, I can’t negotiate a low enough price to please;  & secondly, I have no spare kip in my money belt to offer any more.

So we walk away. And I can only but presume I’ve not caused any serious loss of face since I’m not encouraged back with a lowered price that could better close the deal in this cut-throat tourist haven, for both of us.

Nonetheless I walk on with a slightly heavy heart knowing we’ve both lost out in one way or another; when transactions might perhaps have ended as a win/win, for business & for tourism.

Yet there’s time enough to gather different glimpses of  Luang Prabang on the way that help brighten my thoughts:

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even the ‘tuck shop’ at the local primary school we’d passed earlier in the day;

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the gathering of sons at the family BBQ, street-side, …

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and the extensive range of goodies available at the shop across the road.

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At eleven o’clock, eight of us tumble into the pre-ordered  tuk-tuk & head south for 28 kms towards the picturesque Kuang Si Falls, agreeing to share the 20,000 kip fare between us when we’re returned later in the afternoon.

The tuk-tuk mostly putters along for about an hour as it winds through hills with spectacular views – including terraced rice fields, & road-hugging villages – though it occasionally belts along at top speed – guesstimated to be ‘around 50-60 km/h’ according to both Karl & Roly – only slowing down to almost-a-dead-stop so as to negotiate a one-lane wooden bridge, or two; or for the driver to pay over money at a tuk-tuk checkpoint.

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Once past the parking point & ticket buying booth, following along well-trodden pathways & across solid bridges

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we find the falls become incrementally more beautiful & photogenic the higher we trace its tiers.

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The pools are peacock blue, & clear. The water is mountain-chill cool. And there are so many opportunities for our cameras to be engaged capturing the wonderful displays of Mother Nature at her best that my memory card is soon full so I have to then erase some to make space for something even better.

We stop short of the final section because it requires time spent negotiating the ‘Trekking Way,’ & and anyway I’ve possibly been that way before in 2010 (though from the opposite direction, & starting in the village of Ban Long).

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It’s when the young girls tell me about balancing their way across a length of bamboo spanning the spillway I know it’s definitely the place I’d  visited during a cross-country trek towards the Falls & our final meeting point  – the swimming hole with the ladder built onto the slippery-smooth tree limb & the notched rope suspended somewhat out of reach – except for those endangering life & limb with an elongated precarious stretch, risking immersion in the waters below before one’s even touched the swing.

After taking too many photos from every possible angle – & more that will become reminders of our presence in yet-another Paradise abroad –

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Ben’s camera-finger similarly turns busier than a beaver building a dam of sticks …

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everything reflecting the blue-tinged existence he generally inhabits, until I bend his actions to my will & urge that he adds a touch of colour – & frivolity – to his compositions

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Of course, otherwise & elsewhere there’s also the relatively-free-roaming bears to see : the Malayan Moon Bears & the Laotian Sun Bears;

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those rescued from  poachers possibly seeking bile to extract for medicine, perhaps  merely as a remedy for headaches.

Both species are relatively small in size compared to other Asiatic Black bears, as a row of replica figurines demonstrate.

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We gather a few snack items at one of the marketplace stalls set up on the periphery of the parking area; though not the chicken bits  we notice grilling on bamboo skewers.

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Ben buys a long-sleeved tan shirt for 35,000 kip that’s similar to one purchased in Byron Bay. There’s even enough time to check out some impressive craftsmanship at one of the nearby artisans’ galleries.

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After the allocated two hours we gather at the tuk-tuk ready for the return journey; and all filled with stories to tell, the youngsters still dripping wet & chilled to the bone by the time we reach our Luang Prabang guesthouse & part with our requisite cash portions, each according to Karl’s calculations.

We make a quick dash through the temple grounds to the Joma Bakery for a very late snack round three, then set off to peruse the shops on Setthalath Road seeking out a place to burn my photos onto a DVD. Each place we locate finds the task impossible. I begin to think it might be time to upgrade my camera to one with a more-easily-recognisable memory card. Still we overcome the problem by transferring Ben’s photos onto a disc for 30,000 kip at a recommended DVD-burning joint on Phommathat Road, so freeing up his camera for our sunset viewing on Mount Phu Si, & in preparation for the up-coming Mekong journey.

We find ourselves at the rear entrance to the mountain, & walking up & along a path I never knew existed. What a serendipitous find! This is by far the more beautiful climb of Phu Si Mountain. Take a look at the wonderful variety of impressive Buddhas we found along the way:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in the Swing of Walking

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I’ve not much spare time left in my days at present because, when I’m not climbing ladders trying to rid my life of pigeons, or knitting a triangle or square for the upcoming secretive Knitting Nannas Against Gas yarn-bombing event, I’m reading The Book Thief; flipping my way through the 500+ pages, tracing the tale related by Death while the characters live & breathe in my bedroom as I begin another pre-Summer morning beside a bedside lamp.

Though I do manage to grab an hour for something other than climbing, reading or knitting when Ben, my son, heads off to his karate class of an evening.This is how it goes …

We travel together in the Mazda 3. I park the transport up from Richard Marlin’s Success Martial Arts academy, then glance sideways at Ben as he enters the space carrying the tote bag containing his gi, belt and water bottle, before delivering a respectful bow and stepping bare-footed into Sensei Debbie’s arena to unlock his mojo.

Outside my brown Telent joggers lead me westward towards the streets of South Lismore, aiming to take my treads on more-than-just-a-pleasant-stroll, wearing down rubber as I move forward – and sometimes sideways – into a renewed sense of upwards-of-walking-paced fitness; & with a few tricep dips and chest presses thrown in at strategic points along the way when a fence provides the metal & space for a grip.

‘I saw you walking out near the little bridge over south,’ says my neighbour later in the evening.

‘Thank God I wasn’t out on a secret RSVP hook-up,’  I say to Darren the crane driver with the long blond pony-tail. ‘ Seems a woman can’t grab a bit of anonymous space around the town, no matter how far she roams.’

‘It’s just that I used to see you beating the bitumen around the cattle sales’ yards at the northern end of town most mornings; and just thought you do hoof it around Lismore quite a bit.’

‘Not as much now as I used to; when a one-and-a-half hour walking session was almost the daily norm.’

Still the South Lismore walking loop is getting me back into the swing of things. I’m certainly enjoying exploring new areas of the town – those southern sections previously obscured from my life for one reason or another – while finding new ways to satisfy my exploratory nature and rekindle a mindful focus on the here-and-now.

And Ben is happier now that I drive his invigorated body home after the hype of a karate class stretches his muscles and slightly unsettles the fragile hold he aims to maintain on his mind on a daily basis.

The Good Lie

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Friday evening our footsteps lead us – at the butt end of the day – to the Birch, Carroll & Coyle Cinema in downtown Lismore for a special fund-raising viewing of The Good Lie.

Beforehand, as the first customers of the night, we dine on Supreme pizza at the hotel restaurant across the road. It’s a great choice at the right place, for the right price.

Since there’s never too much traffic around the Zadoc Street intersection at this time, we then jaywalk to the cinema before  mingling in the foyer & meeting up with friends – of the black- and white-skinned variety: a quick chat with the ever-vivacious Dji Dji, then a blathering of open-hearted conversation, with Mary & Judith since ‘it’s been a while.’

‘Ben’s looking particularly well. Seems to be more confident & conversational than before,’ says an ever-observant Judith.

‘It’s the presentations he’s been doing at TAFE. He’s needed to place himself in public view most Wednesdays; & voice an opinion on the research he’s been undertaking online, on a variety of domesticated animals.For his Animal Studies units.’

We follow other footsteps, placing our soles upon the down-trodden threads of gaudy carpet as we journey into the main auditorium, licking on choc-topped ice-creams before conversations soften as a guest speaker opens her heart, & our minds, to the work she’s been doing in South Sudan as a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières: providing lifesaving medical care in the midst of an ongoing crisis as South Sudan continues to grapple with grave and urgent humanitarian medical needs, brought on by conflict and massive displacement within & beyond its borders.

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After fighting broke out in Juba on 15 December 2013, and subsequently in several other states, over 1.7 million South Sudanese people have been displaced from their homes. 1.3 million of these remain within the country, while more than 450,000 are seeking refuge in the neighbouring countries:  in the Lietchuor refugee camp in the Gambella area of Ethiopia; the Adjumani district in northern Uganda; in Nyumanzi transit centre and in two permanent camps: Aylo 1 and Aylo 2;  if not in Maban, home to about 128,000 refugees who have fled the ongoing conflict in Sudan’s Blue Nile state: those caught between two wars – unable to safely return home, and anxious about the encroaching South Sudanese conflict.

The conflict has devastated the country’s already fragile healthcare system, leaving volunteers to fight the severe outbreaks of malnutrition & malaria, alongside the sharp increases in kala azar cases, those suffering the parasitic disease transmitted by the sand fly that is almost always fatal if left untreated.

The movie takes us into this land of troubles & woe and introduces us to the footprints – and handprints – being left on African dust across a brutal – yet beautiful – savannah by the displaced wanderers; as the Lost Boys of the Sudan, caught in a brutal civil war that kills their parents and threatens them with abduction or death by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, along with a seemingly-never-ending queue of  boys and girls as they walk hundreds of miles to the relative safety of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Bent on survival, they become predators, feasting on an antelope killed by leopards, and  crossing a river clogged with corpses rather than continuing into the path of rapid gun-fire. Only their mantra “I want to live, I do not want to die” sustains them until they reach the barbed-wire enclosure of Kenya’s refugee camp.

Fast track forward:  accepted into the USA, and settled into Kansas, lives change  … but hearts, and principles, seemingly never do as they’re assisted by facilitators, rather than saviours; surely adjusting to their new world and becoming heroes of their own lives.

Alongside the film’s respect for facts and truths, ‘ harrowing biographies lend heft to a story drenched in heartbreak’  … though sometimes its best to allow one’s footsteps to follow the line of  ‘a good lie’ to otherwise bring on the possibility of redemption, and of course tears in the process. Nonetheless, as Richard Corliss writes for Time Magazine, ‘If a moviegoer can’t cry for the great tragedy of these Sudanese children, and be touched by their small victories, then who on earth deserves our tears and cheers?’

With a generous number of poignant moments, the movie takes its title from Huckleberry Finn’s distinction of good and bad lies — a good lie is one you tell to right a wrong or save a soul.

We do not leave The Good Lie unmoved; for  its heart – like our own selves on this Friday evening in Lismore – was really  in the right place.

The Lost Boys of Sudan

Pigeons

bird-damage-pest-treatment-sydney-serviceMy feet were on the ground pretty early today. In fact I’d padded a few footsteps through the house in the dark of night – though really the wee small hours of the morning – after being woken from sleep by the cooing of pigeons – the long-standing feathered enemy – above my bedroom window.

It seems the $2,000 already spent on metal spikes as part of an on-going process to deter such rogue pigeons from roosting & nesting beneath the gables of my roof has proven to be simply ‘not enough fiscal outlay’ to yet ‘do the job’ on these persistent critters.

‘They’ve such a passion for your place,’ says the builder I choose to ring;  engaging him in conversation a bit beyond dawn suggesting he may like to look into designing a box-type fixture out of clear plastic corrugated roofing sheets with edges secured with silicon because the roof can’t possibly take another row of spikes.

Nice thing is, I hear  a degree of sympathy in his responses.

Good thing is he’s going to take a look at the roof-line to familiarise himself with the problem that persists so as to devise the best solution for me; because it appears the City Council doesn’t deal with pests of this nature; nor does its staff know who’s best to ring. So much for the high rates we pay for our sense of community well-being.

I read on Google that shooting the problem birds at night is the best way to deal with such avian persistence. Yet who’s going to come to my home to climb onto my roof (in downtown Lismore, New South Wales) in the dark of night with a loaded gun?

Perhaps if I advertised on-line I may find a willing dare-devil: an Afghan War veteran with unfinished business on his mind yet merely the ghosts of Taliban-led insurgents in his sights.

And though pigeons have long played an important role in wars as military messengers ( until 1957; or  1996 in the case of the disbanding of the Pigeon section of the Swiss army) who wants a guy with a gun snooping around the place at night. It certainly would not be in the community’s best interests.

Still, though the French military used hot-air balloons to transport homing pigeons past enemy lines, and one heroic Blue Check pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroic service (after delivering twelve important messages during the Battle of Verdun (1918)  despite having been shot through the breast, and with a crucial message being found in a capsule hanging from a ligament of her shattered leg, thus  saving the lives of about 200 US military personnel), I do need to come up with a somewhat-crucial security pact with these feathered foe so as to mark an end to this long-time mission; an intense & drawn-out mission where civilians continue to pay the price while insurgency drags on.

Until then my nocturnal life remains in dream-breaking limbo; mission unresolved;  awaiting the final withdrawal of the feathered troops.

Though, when comparing these common-variety communal pests to their beautiful fan-tail cousins,  I see no similar white tail-feathers that can be raised in submission.

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And by then I may have quite forgotten what winning looks like.

Besides, when a pigeon lands on my roof in the midst of thousands of other quite similar rural bungalows positioned along straight pot-holed roadways just two blocks from Lismore Square who, other than the sympathetic builder, is really paying attention?

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