All posts by virtualtravele

A Life for a Life

A LIFE FOR A LIFE”

LUCIUS and LARS

2616 C.E.

 

            “Freakin’ showoff,” Lucius whispered to himself while nervously running his hand through his hair. He gazed out through the space station’s expansive curved windows, long fingers combing between each matted rope of black dreads. And as he watched the hover-boarder float on the atmosphere’s crimson waves, he wondered how many fell.

Behind Lucius, a swarm of roaming drones, each no larger than a bee, buzzed down the corridor. In search of trouble, he thought, and ignored them. In the climate-controlled comfort of the galaxy’s headquarters, he watched the solitary space-boarder weave an invisible pattern in the blistering cold sky and imagined what it would be like to tumble forever in an infinite space. It wasn’t a fate he’d wish on his worst enemy, but he’d bet the boarder had asked the same question before and must’ve thought it worth the risk if he could get jacked-up with the endorphin high all hover-boarders seemed to crave.

With all their dare-devil antics, Lucius thought space-surfers got more attention than they deserved. For that matter, so did the Swat team, the space station’s elite paramilitary group. Still, he didn’t want either job. A boarder’s work was exhausting, required spray-on superalloy clothing that was hot and smelly, and like the military, they never knew if they’d come home alive.

There’d been recent rumors about the Swat Team signing up new recruits, and that a lineup of torture addicts was sabotaging each other with muscle retardants for the few open jobs. Lucius wanted none of it. He had convinced himself that boring stuff, like deciphering algorithms, had its merits even if the girls never gave him a second look after he opened his mouth. Who cared? He had his droid sidekick, Zoop. What more could a sixteen-year-old guy need?

Reina, he thought. He shifted in his seat, impatient with the long wait outside the lab, anxious to see the moon-faced technician. He weighed the fantasy of stroking her supple pale cheek down her neck as far as he could go against patting Zoop’s polycarbonate casing then sighed. What he’d do to have her in his life.

The first time he’d seen Reina was at the 2615 Cyclotron Boarding Cup race. They had materialized at the entrance to the thirty-thousand-seat space arena at the same time. After pocketing his IMAG transporter, a device that allowed travel through air waves by ionizing molecules then re-materializing the atoms with electrostatic glue, he surveyed the landing platform. The solar system’s largest sports coliseum had swarmed with more flag-waving rowdies than he could count. Giving the crowd a nonchalant once-over, he wondered how many new planets were competing in the race. He really didn’t care. Long ago he had convinced himself he wasn’t the competitive type.

“This sucks,” the bleached-white blonde in front of him had complained in a heartbreaking drawl. She’d finger-swiped the miniature crystal implant on her wrist. Looking impossibly helpless, she pouted, “My ticket isn’t in my P.A.” Shake as she may, her Personal Attendant’s case remained empty. Her eyes, the faint blue of a distant star, teared up.

Lucius had shoved his hands in his side pockets and watched her. He’d waited for a superhero to step up and give her an extra ticket, one bought with the hopes of hooking up with a rad-looking babe like this slammin’ long-legged starlet. But no one took the cue until she’d lifted her head, pushed back a loose swirl of silver highlighted hair, and their eyes connected.

He’d known right away she was playing him. But wasn’t that what he expected? So he’d taken the bait.

“Hey, sweet nothing, my buddy couldn’t make it. Got an extra ticket if you need one,” he’d said, and with a single tap on his P.A., a suspended hologram with the Boarding Cup logo shimmered in front of him. “Take it.”

“Aww, thanks, tall dark and handsome,” she’d said. “I’m Reina.” She’d given him a leisurely hug, kissed him on the lips, then pinching the holo, it dissolved into her PA. “Catch you inside,” she’d purred, disappearing before he could ask where.

“The name’s 2600-4-27 Lucius,” he’d yelled after her into a crowd of thousands.

He’d seen several other girls on the far side of the landing eyeing him with interest. He knew he wasn’t hard to look at, and they were everything a guy should want: fresh as a spring breeze and sporting styli like himself—sister dweebs. He should’ve tried to connect with them. But he hadn’t. For some reason, his gut told him the blonde, Reina, was his type, and he’d hoped they’d hook up later.

It wasn’t until after the race that he saw the lunar face girl again, wrapping herself around the lanky victor of the games: 2600-4-27 Lars, Lucius’s brother. Lars’s orange, dragon-tail buzz-cut hung lopsided on his head, an after effect of the race that made all the girls, including Reina, want to smoother him with caresses—and Lars let them. Lars knows how to play people to get what he wants, Lucius thought. He did it to me.

The smell of her lemon-scented shampoo, sharp yet tangy, had lingered in his mind. Lucius had shaken his head, disgusted with himself for being such an easy read. You sucker. He’d clenched his fist. A ripple of adrenaline had coursed up his onyx black arm. Pulling out his programming stylus, he’d released short, even bursts of electric rage and tagged the wall with one of his graffiti signatures: UROT, expressing how he felt about everyone around him and himself.

Staring out the bowed pane of glass in the base station, Lucius brought his mind back to the present. Through ribbons of flame-colored methane clouds, at the gateway to the solar system’s most lucrative mining pit, the hover-boarder that was flipping and skimming was Lars. After the 2615 Games and his twenty-four hours of fame, Lars had returned to the mines as a simple robot shepherd.

Lucius watched as the surfer extended an arm to herd a flock of wing-shaped robots. One after another, they flew out of the planet’s hostile gas interior. Most of the time, Lars rode the asphyxiating waves on the nose of his board. Every now and then he dropped to the tail and slowed his speed before making a looping turn to snag a stray robot’s fishhook feather and guide it along.

Lucius cringed. It wasn’t that he wanted Lars to stumble then float away in zero-gravity space. It was just that having inherited the gene for watching, Lucius couldn’t imagine why anyone would expose themselves to drifting in perpetual space, forever; on a never ending ride.

Lucius had been waiting for fifteen minutes to be let into the lab to fix a software glitch. One of the bots that harvested human zygotes from the base station’s incubator was on the fritz. In his frustration, he twisted his body too abruptly and caught his finger in his chair’s matting. Embarrassed, he frantically worked to unsnag it then leaned over to see if Reina had noticed what a dumbass he was. The tech was nowhere in sight. Relieved, he extended his arms in front of him in a long stretch, arched his back, cracked his knuckles, and stared back out at the infinite haze of star-studded space.

Although Lucius and Lars came from the same zygote vat, they were as much like brothers as a deer mouse is to a camel. Lars was colorless, like white granite with icicle-sharp features always edging into the picture, while Lucius was dark-skinned, a shadow that molded into the background. The two lived in the base station on the planet Tirap, along with another hundred thousand inhabitants. Still, Lucius made sure they rarely crossed paths, as he had since they were ten. This past year, he particularly had not wanted to be reminded of what a fool he had been the day of the cyclotron race. Or give Lars a chance to push one of his ballistic buttons, something his brother had a knack of doing. It hadn’t always been that way, Lucius thought, remembering a holo taken when they were younger and no taller than hip-high to a headmaster droid.           Holding dinner plates spilling over with food and smirking as though they’d just pocketed a couple of elf bots, Lucius had looked like a lumpy teddy bear and Lars a squirrelly puppy. Having no parents on Tirap, they’d learned to lean on each other at an early age. Right before someone snapped the holo, they had been sitting in bed together, reading, until Lars fell asleep on Lucius’s bigger shoulder. Then the dinner bell rang and they had raced to the dining hall. With Lars always the winner, they were the first in line and got the largest mounds of mashed potatoes. That’s when the holo was taken, when they were still the best of friends. Until one day when the two brothers went to try out for the planet’s hover-boarding team. That’s when Lars had showed Lucius his other side.

They were ten-year-olds. There was only one spot on the boarding team.

“You’re gonna win,” Lucius conceded, defeat already in his voice. “You’re always the fastest.”

Fidgeting with his board and jumpy with excitement Lars avoided Lucius’s gaze. “No way. You’re bigger and smarter than me.”

When the signal to take off came, Lucius had popped-up on his board, expecting an electrostatic lift. Nothing happened, except that Lars zoomed away.

Lucius jumped off his hovercraft, turned it over, and peeled away a millimeter-thick, metal shielding someone had planted there to block the magnetic thrusters. The board hadn’t been out of his sight except to sign in, when he’d left it under Lars watch.

He kicked the board until it was nothing but splinters.

“Lars, you didn’t have to cheat,” he yelled after the vibrating airwaves. Lars was no Tesla, but he had everything going for him when it came to air boarding.  

Later, Lars swore he had nothing to do with the fix. But they both knew the truth. Since then, Lucius had made it a habit to avoid Lars. It had hurt too much to be betrayed. But he knew he couldn’t shield himself forever.

A few months after the cyclotron race, Lucius had been called to Reina’s lab to re-program the sanitizing station. Having lost the last of his baby fat, he’d looked totally buff in a tight, short-sleeve shirt that his droid had made him change into so he didn’t look like such a dork. He was hot and he knew it. The only problem was convincing Reina to see him that way.

When he’d arrived, he had found Lars in the middle of a cozy conversation with Reina. One arm braced against the access to the ozone supply closet, and Reina’s back against the red door. She’d swirled her foot on the sterile tiled floor, with that sweet helpless look, and readied herself to lasso Lars into her trap.

At first they didn’t hear Lucius enter, so their game continued, until Lucius bumped into a lab counter, jostling the instruments on the edge.

“Hey,” Lars had said, a butt-head grin on his face, nodding at Lucius as he’d re-adjusted the equipment.

“Got an emergency repair call,” Lucius had answered, cracking his knuckles at the sight of Lars. “But it looks like I’m intruding. I can come back later.” He turned to leave.

“Good timing, boyo.” Reina had frowned then pushed herself off the door and sashayed over to the lab bench, ass swaying from side to side so that even a droid couldn’t ignore her. “Here,” she’d pointed at a control panel. “I know you can fix it.” Then she’d eyed Lucius up and down. “Looking cute today. Get a little help from that hipster droid of yours?”

Lucius had wrinkled his forehead, unsure if Reina was insulting or complimenting him. Why do I like her? He’d shoved his hands in his pockets and walked to the stainless steel counter, where he’d retrieved a hologram of the lab’s programming code.

“That’s way cool how you can control what a droid thinks,” Lars had said, a hint of respect bleeding through the unmasked sarcasm. He playfully slung an arm around Reina’s neck. “When that droid started acting weird, I told doll face here she should fetch her techie right away to make sure she’s taken care of.”

“I see you’ve got that under control,” Lucius had answered as he circled the holo to check out the code.

Reina had wrapped her arms around Lars body like a white spider spinning its web. Lars is nothing but a liar, a cheat, and a thief. He can have any girl. Why Reina?

“I’m just a simple boarder, but I do my best with what I got. All the high IQ genes in my zygote batch got dished out before they got to me,” Lars goaded with an insincere smile.

Lucius had noticed the teasing glint in Lars’s prominent triangular eyes. Biting his lower lip, he’d turned his attention back to the programming language suspended in midair. “You do your thing and I’ll do mine.” Just don’t bust my balls, he’d thought, pissed that Lars always had to win. Then he zipped the programming holo shut and flipped the switch. The motor purred.

Lucius pulled himself out of his mind talk and focused again on the scenery outside the curved window. He had to admire the surfer’s agility as Lars snared each mining robot by its feathers, prodded the robots with his staff and led them to the discharge station. When they safely landed, the bird bots unwound the hooked ends of their silver quills and latched them onto enormous industrial cylinders. With a loud swoosh, each bird released close to one-hundred kilograms of Xenon superconductor: liquid gold.

Once the day’s take was unloaded, Lars cautiously drove his flock back to the maintenance platform. He hesitated here and there when blinded by unpredictable bursts of ice vapor from the planet’s inner core. Then as the gaseous squalls settled down, he corralled the mining robots onto the dock, lined up his flock, gently patted down their barbed plumage, then deactivated them and left. The cleaning crew would arrive soon to buff the frozen spikes of the Xenon off their veneers. In the glowing, frigid afternoon winds that swirled around the desolate flock, they looked like a piece of crude artwork.

“Ready for Programming Tech 2600-4-27 in the zygote lab,” announced a raspy drawl through the sound system.

Lucius jumped from his seat. His dreads fell down the back of his black t-shirt, which was only a shade darker than his skin. He purposely took his time walking to the sanitizing booth. Once inside, an ozone flash zapped him clean. The airlock opened into the zygote laboratory, a high security compartment, where the base station’s work forces were grown. After being harvested, the children who survived in the harsh environment of Tirap until they were twenty-years-old were rewarded and sent to live in perpetual ecstasy on a space station less than a thousand kilometers beyond the planet’s stratosphere. There they lived out their mortal days as whomever or whatever they wanted.

Having wasted a quarter of an hour watching his brother show off, Lucius was ready for alone time with the zygote tech. In a low, melodic voice he asked, “Hey, angel, what ya got for me?” He hoped he sounded more at ease than he felt.

Reina was three years his senior and never let him forget it. “Most likely more than you can handle, little dipper,” she answered, walking to the incubator.

For all Reina’s wild ways when she was away from work, once she donned her white lab coat, she was queen of the genetics world and there was no messing with her. She halted next to a cactus droid and stood ramrod straight.

“Now, stop your astro-turd flirting and fix this piece of junk.” She pointed at the multi-appendaged droid, contempt dripping from the delicate curve in her lips.

A pool of gelatinous mass, infused with microscopic ova, lay inches from the stainless steel surgical table. “The moron keeps dumping all the eggs on the ground instead of into the zipper machine,” she explained. Her rose-petal-smooth skin clashed with her callous treatment of the droid.

Lucius walked over to the droid, wondering how Reina could be so unforgiving when it wasn’t the machine’s fault. He held one of its grey branches between his fingertips as though taking a pulse and extracted a virtual screen that listed its operational code. A series of letters, numbers, and punctuations hung in the air for several minutes. With his stylus, he changed one of the numbers on the display before releasing his grip.

“OK. Give it a try, lunar lips.” He smirked, hoping maybe now she would see who he was beyond his job description.

She gave him a sidelong glance for barely a heartbeat, then she obeyed and activated the droid.

The machine swiveled to the incubation box, pulled out a fresh tray of eggs, returned to the operating table where it poured the gooey liquid into the zygote-splicing dish, and stepped back. Repair accomplished.

Reina groaned. “What’d you do, baby geek?”

“Changed the drop-off point two centimeters closer to the table. Poor droid was releasing the goo too soon. And I’m not a baby, I’ll be nineteen next month.”

“Sure. Next month plus three years,” she clarified, physically pushing the droid to move faster.

He looked up at the ceiling in defeat. How could he get Reina to see him as more than just a toy for her to tease? Wasn’t there more to life than being hot and good at playing games? Before he let his disappointment show, he dished out the dirt she expected. “Now, lava cakes, if you don’t mind, I got a shard game starting in five minutes. Are we done here?”

“Ya, and don’t call me lava cakes. I’m not your dessert,” she smirked. As the airlock opened and he stepped inside it, she added, “Lucky punk.”

He turned back to say something but the door swooshed shut and all he could do was grin. Would he ever be able to tell her how he felt?

Waiting outside the laboratory was his sidekick Zoop, a box-shaped paramedic droid that levitated no higher than Lucius’s thigh. Zoop scooted over. The android had just returned from a search and rescue mission and its energizer was all but drained. Yet it had enough charge left for a game of shards.

“Hey buddy, done for the day,” he sighed, and looking back at the lab wondered why it was so hard for Reina to let loose and get beyond that badass, tougher than invincible shell.   “Ready for a game of shards?” Lucius reached down to pet the soft fur on the droid’s square top. Zoop’s rigid form dissolved into a soft, squeezable pillow. “Not here, pal. Gotta be tough.” His sidekick straightened up into a metallic cube and probably would’ve saluted if it had arms.

Lucius led Zoop down a neighborhood corridor of the space station’s master planned village. Immersed in bubbles of their favorite sensory settings, off-duty residents strolled through the brushed-chrome passage. A contingent of alien representatives, shaped like a green glob of photosynthesizing fish eggs, swirled past, ignoring Lucius and Zoop.

After they were out of earshot Lucius whispered, “Life hacks!” He guided Zoop forward at a fast pace, the palm of his hand on the back of the droid’s head.

Zoop’s eye probes went crisscross.

Lucius recognized the perplexed look. “Reina treats me like I’m a joke,” he explained. “There’s no respect!”

Zoop pushed out its polycarbonate chest.

“Yeah, next time I’ll stand up to her . . . Maybe you should come along. She likes you.” Lucius paused for a moment.

“And hey, no tricks at the shard game. I know you’re smarter than me . . . on some things. But don’t be spookin’ the others into thinking you’re playing my hand for me. They’ve already asked why I always bring you along. I don’t want to go agro again when they call me a cheater then get kicked out of the game because you think you know what’s best. You’re not helping.”

As smart as droids were, they couldn’t grasp right from wrong. They were programmed to use their logic to outsmart others. And at that moment, still stinging from Reina’s dismissal, Lucius was in no shape to take heat and get booted from a shard game just so Zoop could show off its intelligence.

Zoop sagged at the hurt in Lucius’s voice. It checked the corridor in both directions, then slipped back into its pillow form long enough to nuzzle Lucius’s calf. Lucius stroked the droid’s top.

That’s when the station’s alarm system blared. Within seconds, Swat Team soldiers filled the gleaming-silver corridor. Viper-shaped eye-slits in the black mechanical uniforms worn by humans was the only way of identifying whether a droid or a person was pushing past. With the butt ends of their laser swords, the squad of elite teens elbowed their way down the hall through the mindless crowd zoned into their personal radio waves, oblivious of the emergency alert.

Lucius grabbed Zoop, certain they were under attack.

In a flat, emotionless tone, the base station’s speaker system announced, “Incident in the troposphere. High readings of shredded superalloy clothing.”

Lucius and Zoop rushed back to the window outside the lab, facing the mine shaft. Beyond the glass barrier, a winged mining robot was ensnared on the discharge platform and Lars was freeing it. Even at that distance, Lucius could see Lars’s clothing flake off.

Why’s Lars risking his life for a bot? Then Zoop snuggled against his leg. Immediately he realized it was a dumb question. If it was Zoop out there, he’d be doing the same thing.

“Hey, is that paramedic droid yours?” a Swat Team youth asked from behind. He pushed Lucius aside and reached out to grab Zoop.

“What’s it to you?” Lucius answered, planting his body in front of his buddy.

Lucius straightened his posture so he towered over the other teen. The intimidation worked, for the moment. He knew Zoop’s energy was drained and it wasn’t ready for another assignment, especially one where he’d have to fight that raging storm.

Reina came racing down the hall, her close-cut hair sticking out in all directions. “What’s going on?”

The paramilitary youth pointed out the window. The turbulent afternoon winds swirled pink and orange, enough asphyxiating gas to suffocate the whole station. “Some galactic bozo’s out there trying to save a robot. He’s going to crystalize into black char.”

Reina’s face froze. She stared out at Lars fighting to free his robot, disregarding the fact that his own life was on its final countdown.

She grabbed the officer’s sleeve. “Do something.”

“Without an EMS droid, I can’t do anything. Besides, we got a thousand more shepherds waiting to take his place.” The soldier responded, disinterested in Reina’s panic.

“It would look pretty bogus if the solar system’s current boarding champion died because someone was too lazy to get help.” Her eyes let him know who that someone was and their name would not stay secret.

“Don’t blame me,” the guard whined. “What you need is over there.” He pointed at Zoop, who floated trustingly behind Lucius.

Reina shot a glance in Lucius’s direction then looked back at the officer, puzzled. “He’s a nerd!”

“Look again.”

When she did, she saw Lucius and Zoop, a boy and his droid.

Reina closed her eyes, pressed her lips together tightly, and let her impossibly helpless guise wash over her face. When she opened her luminescent blue eyes, they were aglow with a plan. Lucius knew what he was in for as soon as she walked over to him and wrapped her arm around his broad shoulders.

“Your EMS droid’s the best around. Indestructible. If you let this soldier use it to help Lars, you’d get a lot of attention from the right people.”

Zoop doesn’t stand a chance out there, he thought. Almost out of juice, it doesn’t have the energy to fight that storm. But in Reina’s desperate eyes, he saw she’d never understand how he felt. To her, it was Lars out there and Zoop was just another droid

Reina fingered the cuff of his sleeve, giving him time to decide. How could he sentence Zoop to obliteration even if that was Lars out there…Lars, his brother, once his best pal now his nemesis…but also a human being. At that moment the sharp edge of Zoop’s polycarbonate box stabbed his thigh. The plastic hurt.

She’s right. My droid is tough. He dare not look at Zoop. And Reina needs me. He saw it in her eyes, the promises he wanted to hear.

“Ok, my droid can go, but no longer than ten minutes,” Lucius answered while nudging his little buddy out from hiding. He bent down and peered into Zoop’s optical light sensors. “You can do this pal—for me.” Then he ruffled his droid’s floppy mop but had to look away.

Zoop straightened so every corner of its metallic box creased perfectly. Even the soft fur on its head became rigid.

The young officer pushed the EMS droid toward the exterior doors. “If that surfer was a nobody, he’d be a goner,” the guard told Reina, and before Lucius could say goodbye, the button for the airlock hissed. From the curved window, Lucius watched his android float away from Home Base.

“You did the right thing.” Reina leaned her head against Lucius’s chest, practically melting with relief. “Your droid’s a machine. Lars is not.”

Are you sure, Lucius wondered, feeling her cold hand on his neck.

Beyond the safety of the base station, Lars struggled in the strong longitudinal winds, his mining robot clutched in his arms as Xenon gas leaked from its tank. All around them, swirling yellow and red gases swelled into violent squalls.

Without warning, a gust of wind caught one of the winged robot’s feathers. It hooked into the shepherd’s cloth and ripped off Lars’s mask. The robot froze. Lucius gasped as the suffocating vapors engulfed Lars and the frigid gas burned the flesh on his face.

Zoop glided to within an arm’s reach of Lars. Once there, it morphed into a cover and enfolded Lars and the mining robot, rolling them deeper within its soft inner core, until they were engulfed in a protective womb. They couldn’t push off with the onslaught of glacial-cold gusts of gas. So they waited. As Lucius watched, the blanketed mass twisted and rotated in painful contortions, pieces of outer fiber was sheared off in the wind, but its passengers were safe and snug inside.

“No!” Lucius shouted. He pushed Reina away and pressed his forehead and palms against the frigid window. “Zoop can’t take any more.” But it was too late to do anything about it.

After endless minutes, the lashing winds settled down. Zoop automatically set its ion propulsion in gear, aimed toward the base station, and glided home.

Lucius knew the droid’s exoskeleton had been weakened by the brutal squalls and if it pushed beyond a safe speed, it would crumble. “Zoop don’t go that fast,” Lucius yelled, fear more than anger in his voice. Yet they all knew Zoop could not hear him.

“At least Lars has a chance to live, now.” Reina reached out to Lucius’s unresponsive hand.

Lucius watched the blanket unravel, particle by particle, shedding bits of fiber in the never ending space, until they reached the landing. By then there was only a thin shell left of his droid.

Reina pulled Lucius away from the blistering glass, his face red with frost bite. With anger building inside, he couldn’t face her. Unable to control his thoughts, every neuron in his brain fired unrestrained, ricocheting liberated emotions, until he felt numb.

“You should be proud.” Reina patted Lucius on the back. “Your droid did its duty.”

He was barely aware Reina was there. He no longer cared. His best friend was disintegrating into cosmic debris and it was because of him. For the first time, Lucius was not afraid to show what it meant to care, even if it was for a droid. And if Reina thought him weak, it no longer mattered.

He clenched his fist, and with futile rage, smashed it against the window. The cruel exosphere ignored his outburst. Instead, a show of asteroids fell beyond the orange horizon.

He heard rather than saw the emergency squad rush Lars out of the airlock toward the infirmary. Barely turning his head, Lucius glimpsed the paramedics swathing Lars in an airtight wrap. The frigid air had burned his face black from his scalp to his neck. HIs eyes, nose, and mouth were a blur of char.

A medic, one of the older teens, shouted, “His lungs got hit with methane. We need a stem cell transplant to kill all cancer cells. Somebody find a match. Now!”

Reina turned to Lucius, reluctance showing in her stiff movements. “This may be the wrong time,” she began, then hesitated, “but if the two of you are from the same zygote batch.”

He heard her but she was only noise in his head, like a static charge, buzzing, drilling.

“I’m going to need some of your stem cells,” she continued, putting up a pretense of calm. “The methane will soon metastasize any dormant cancer cells in his lungs.”

But all Lucius could think was that they had destroyed—no—he had let them obliterate Zoop, his only link to sanity in this cold-hearted world. An empty feeling welled up within, threatening to suffocate him. He betrayed his best friend.

In answer to Reina, an echo in his mind repeated: Lars is not getting my DNA. Lars is not getting my DNA. Lars is not getting my DNA.

“Give me the P.A. on your wrist and I’ll get the data transfer started. It won’t hurt,” Reina cooed. The sincerity in her voice sounded so real, but now he knew was a lie.

“Fuck him. Let him die.” The wrath inside Lucius exploded. He yanked his arm away. “He’s gettin’ nothin’ from me. He already took more than I could give.” He stepped back, dizzy with thoughts spinning out of control.

He walked in circles, his head lowered, whispering to himself, “I had to let Zoop go—that was its job.” But the words felt hollow. “Its job,” he repeated again and again. But Lucius couldn’t convince himself of his innocence.

With every thought of Zoop, tears of rage burned within, so he closed his eyes, the brushed chrome hallway, ceiling, walls and floor blinked silver on his retina. Why the fuck was everything so sterile, he wondered, and opened his eyes again.

He saw Reina, data probe in hand. Waiting.

“You want me to give Lars my DNA? Fuck no. Find someone else’s stem cells. Or let him die.” Lucius looked up, his whole body heaved with unspent grief.

            Let him die, his thoughts repeated. If Lars wasn’t so stupid, Zoop would still be here.

            Lucius replayed the incident in his mind from the moment the robot’s hooked feather ripped off Lars’s mask. It was as if the mining bot knew from the beginning something had gone terribly wrong. In his mind Lucius saw the feathered robot’s optic probes helplessly watch Lars, as though it knew good from bad, then it curled inward.

Time slipped away. His anger sunk into a grief beyond words. Lucius found a place in his subconscious where he could suffer, lash himself again and again. Admit to himself that his droid was more than a little buddy. More than a box or machine code. Lucius had trusted Zoop with who he was. But Zoop was gone now, and he had no one.

Finally, Lucius let the hum of the outside world in. Even though the Swat Team yelled orders to fall back, curious onlookers elbowed each other and closed in on Reina and Lucius, asking for the whole story. Reina knelt by Lucius, gently coaxing again and again. “Lars needs your stem cells.”

This time he didn’t resist. Lucius extended his wrist for Reina to activate his P.A. implant. “I’m doing this for Zoop, not Lars.” Nothing would bring his droid back, but by saving Lars, he’d fulfill Zoop’s last wish.

Reina tapped into his vitals and read the code from his DNA database. She scrolled to his birth date and time. “Yup, same zygote batch. Not twins but still brothers.”

Brothers, Lucius thought, and memories of the little icicle-pale boy who’d sucked his thumb and snuck into bed with him came to mind. That was long ago. He had never asked why Lars had tricked him. He didn’t have to—Lars always had to win.

Reina slapped a bracelet on his wrist. “Nerd face, time to get you ready for surgery.” Needles from the band quickly numbed his body and soon he blacked out.   The next thing Lucius knew, he was waking up, flat on his back. Blank infirmary walls surrounded him. He laid there, not thinking, until his mind refused to close out the truth.

He sat up, dressed slowly: pulling on one sock, waiting, then pulling on the other, wishing the nightmare would go away. But the white walls remained real. Without realizing what he was doing, he let his feet take him where he could get the answer to end this hell. In the next room lay Lars.

At the doorway to Lars’s room, Lucius stood unmoving, arms pressed against his sides, fists clenched, chin defiantly pulled back, wondering whether this was what brothers always did to each other. How could Lars have known what would hurt most?

Where Lars had once sported his orange dragon-tail buzz cut, smooth, grafted skin covered his head. Lucius grimaced at the sight of the translucent skin on Lars face—veins and muscles exposed—and IV needles dangling from his chest. Other than a flurry of remotely controlled surgical mice zooming about to adjust bandages and monitor the flow of liquid in the tubes, they were alone.

As though sensing Lucius’s presence, Lars opened his eyes.

That first awkward moment hung in the air. Each young man eyed the other with suspicion.

Throwing back his dreads, Lucius exploded. “Why the fuck did you do it?”

“Do what?” Lars answered, too weak to fight back but stubborn enough to show no remorse.

Lucius marched into the room to within inches of Lars’s face, folded his arms across his chest, clutching them to stop himself from ripping off Lars’s head. When he regained control, he explained in a slow, calculated voice, “You screwed up—and someone—that is something—had to save your sorry ass.” Spit and tears went flying everywhere. “That thing was my droid.” Lucius felt like he couldn’t breathe. It hurt so bad every time he thought of Zoop. “You owe me big time.”

“I lost my robot too,” Lars shot back. “You got your revenge. A death for a death.”

That wasn’t the way Lucius saw it. He didn’t want to get even. That was competition stuff, where only the winning or losing counts. That equation would never bring Zoop back.

“Don’t you ever think before you do something and stick your self-important foot up your puny butt?” Lucius grabbed a glass of water from the bed stand and flung against the spotless wall.

“Dude, that’s all you ever do,” Lars’s eyes showed no fear. “Always thinkin’ you’re better than everybody else”

Surprised by Lars’s sharp tongue, Lucius was speechless. He knew he was a klutz, tripping over his own words, always lost in thought, wondering rather than asking. It seemed others had noticed too, but they thought it arrogance rather than self-doubt.

Having left Lucius stunned, Lars pushed himself up further in the bed and let loose with the straight talk. “Stop bein’ a victim. You don’t play the part well.”

Lucius ignored him and bottled the fury inside, just like he always did.

“What I did out there was for my robot.” Lars tried to explain in a gentler tone. Getting no answer, he added under his breath, “I’m sorry . . . okay? Now I said it.”

With a blank face, Lucius watched the mechanical mice click as they readjusted the bandages on Lars’s face. Pale-pink skin bubbled up then shone as the charred flesh healed in fast motion. But Lars’s words pierced Lucius’s mind like a bull charging a red flag, and he hardened his jaw. Sorry? That’s all?

Lars went on, “Years ago, you knew it was me. I was sure you’d never talk. Yet in a way, I’d hoped you would.”

Lucius’s mind flashed back to that day when they were full of dreams and friendship. That day it all stopped because Lars betrayed him.

“Hey, I was always better at boarding than you . . . And you were better at everything else. Can’t you understand surfing is the only thing I can do?” Lars tried to scratch his weeping skin. A mouse slapped his hand away. “What’d it get me? Reina.”

“Reina,” Lucius repeated, no longer sensing a thrill in saying her name. Instead he felt deflated, cheated. She had meant everything to him but was nothing to Lars.

“Yeah,” Lars answered and self-consciously looked at the foot of his bed rather than Lucius. “I’m nothing but a mining shepherd, doing something a million other guys can do. Do you know what it feels like when snobs like you look right past me as though I’m invisible? Reina wants a poster boy to brag about, not me.”

Lucius shook his head. “She doesn’t know what she wants. But I know what I want.” After all those years of waiting for revenge and getting a pathetic story, he punched his fist against the wall. “You owe me a life.”

“You mean a droid.”

Lucius kicked the leg of the only chair in the room. “I lost my best friend because of you.” He booted the chair again and leveled his gaze at Lars. “A life for a life.”

Lars sat up, wincing in pain. “What do you want?” He grabbed a cleaning scalpel, “Here, cut my throat. Or better yet, take my stem cells. You wanna be like me? Does the thought of surfing all over this methane-stinking space light your fire?”

Lucius knew that wasn’t what he wanted. He searched for the right words but only saw the mice and pulsating monitoring equipment. What did he want?

He realized Lars hadn’t really wanted to sabotage him. Lars had just hoped to show everyone there was something he could do better than Lucius. But why did he have to do it that way? Things could have been so different if they’d stuck together.

With no forewarning, the door swooshed open. A Swat Team officer burst into the room, his protective face mask off. His neck bulged out of his skintight uniform. Eyeing Lucius, then Lars, then Lucius, he asked, “Which of you is 2600-4-27 Lucius?”

Neither answered.

Although the officer could be no more than nineteen, his forehead was deeply furrowed with age. “Answer or you’ll be charged with insubordination.”

“Tell us what you want first.” Lars flicked a mouse to the floor.

“Top secret for 2600-4-27 only.” He held up an official-looking contract as evidence.

Lars stretched out a bandaged arm. “Over here. I’m 2600-4-27. Where do I sign?”

Lucius’s and Lars’ eyes connected. Why is Lars doing this, Lucius wondered.

The officer handed Lars a hologram marked with the National Defense seal for his signature and fingerprints. Lars signed and extended his thumb, but the officer snatched the holo and transmitted it, not waiting for security clearance.

“OK, tell me about this assignment. Don’t worry about him.” Lars pointed at Lucius. “He’s proven he’s no snitch.”

“All I can say is the mission’s destination is Earth.” The officer snapped his mouth shut.

Why Earth? Lucius wondered but remained silent. The bully’s body language suggested these were not questions the officer would not answer.

Lars caught Lucius’s attention. A broad smirk broke through his mask of bandages. “A life for a life, bro.”

Lucius wasn’t satisfied. This wasn’t the deal he wanted. He’d never find another Zoop, but he didn’t want Lars to fail. If it was him they were looking to send to earth, it was because he was a techie.

He wrapped his arms in a self-hug, struggling with his confusion. Should he say something or not? Was he willing to go or should he stay? The only way out of his pain was the answer to his lifelong question. So he asked again, What do I want? His head dropped and dreads dangled. This time, his heart gave the answer. I want to be Number One at something. But to win, he knew he’d have to play the game—and sometimes it costs.

The officer turned to leave. “You’ll receive your orders—”

Lucius interrupted, “Excuse me, sir, but there’s been a mistake.”

Impatience on the face of the stocky guard warned Lucius the guy didn’t like being jerked around.

“I’m 2600-4-27 Lucius.” He bit back a laugh at the swat leader’s quivering lip.

“What the hell?” he cursed. “This shithead already signed.”

“Yes. He’s 2600-4-27 but he never said he was Lucius, and you didn’t wait for his fingerprints.” Lucius extended his hand. “The contract?”

This time, the officer waited for the security clearance. He left, but the door swooshed open again as he re-entered, laughing. “Joke’s on the two of you. I’m taking you both.” Then he left.

Lars shouted after him, “You’re gettin’’ double the trouble, pal.” He plopped against his pillow and moaned. “Cyberwarrior, looks like we’re stuck with each other—again.”

The brothers eyed each other. This would not be like learning to read together. It would be more.

Lucius grinned at Lars. For the first time feeling hope, he picked up a mouse, turned it over in the palm of his hand, opened its program code, and sent it chasing down the hall after the officer. Then with one fist clenched in a ball, he jabbed his elbow to his waist and growled, “Booyah!”

 

Hello…I’ll Shoot You…Welcome to Russia

I watched the Russian official interrogate the silver-haired woman ahead of me.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” the young man jeered. His clipped English matched his close-cut hair, thin lips and a thick neck that strained to be freed from a Custom’s starched white shirt.

The elderly woman seemed to shrink. “I can give you the name of our tour agency.” She opened her leather pocketbook and offered him a folded sheet of paper. “There,” she trembled.

Barely glancing at the flyer, he stamped her passport and called out, “Next,” his voice thick with boredom.

I left the lineup of passengers to stand in front of the harshly lit customs booth at Domodedovo International Airport and handed him my passport and visa. Twenty-five years earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Block dissolved, yet I wasn’t sure word had gotten out that the Cold War was over.

The customs officer looked me up and down then flipped through my documents, turning one page back and forth as though something was awry. Annoyed, he asked curtly, “Where is your letter of invitation?”

I felt my knees buckle. “It’s attached to my passport. Isn’t it?” I asked, and in my sleep deprived state I instinctively reached out to show him the page but was blocked by the thick-paned window.

All tourists need a host, or a voucher showing they had secured lodging while in Russia. Knowing I had a copy—somewhere—I unslung my day pack and started digging. In a daze after crossing over two continents and one ocean in less than twenty-four hours, I began to unload my bag on to the floor.

He barked, “Why are you here?”

“I want to see Russia,” I blurted out, then caught myself rolling my eyes at my lame answer.

Satisfied, or exasperated, he handed me stamped papers.

I felt light headed with relief, and gathered my luggage, only to be reminded by the throng of people on the other side of the customs gate that I still had to get to the hotel in a country where I did not speak the language. I scanned the mass of faces, looking for a sign with my name in English. Seeing it with a Welcome to Russia greeting, I fumbled with my cell phone as I rushed over to the grey-haired man wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans and holding the sign. I turned off airplane mode, and hoping my mail-order sim card had been activated for Russia, I pulled up the translator app.

“Hello,” I mouthed into my cell and placed the phone message in front of the taxi-driver’s face. My mobile read the translated greeting aloud to him in Russian.

I’ll shoot you.

He didn’t answer but gave me a wary look; eyes darting back and forth from one side to the other, as though he hadn’t bargained for an American.

I checked the text message, laughed at our awkward beginning, then tried again. This time he nodded after I handed it to him.

He had thinning hair and appeared to be about ten years older than me. Still, I unloaded my luggage on him, then looked left and right in search of an ATM, my neck cracking with each turn. Within minutes of pocketing my rubles, we were in the parking lot. Surprised at the speed of our exit, I glanced back at the terminal. Only then did I realize there had been no fast food vendors or shops with flashy trinkets, inflating the front lobby with unnecessary commercial space.

As he led me through the parking lot I asked, “Do you know any English?”

“A little,” he answered, and in sign language pinched two fingers together showing next to none. Turning to me he asked in heavily accented Russian, “Where you from?”

“California.” I answered, then as an afterthought added “USA,” feeling the exhaustion of trying to catch up with a ten hour time-zone difference and his long strides.

“Ah, I have cousin in Orlando—Orlando, California.” He smiled at our shared connection.

“That’s Florida.” I chuckled, mostly to myself. “The other side of the United States.”

He shrugged, “America. All the same.”

With a tired grin, I opened the dented door, stepped up into the van’s passenger seat, and let my body sink into the ripped artificial leather chair.

Hopping into the driver’s seat, he threw the stick shift into gear, and enthusiastically announced, “I show you fast way.” Before I could object, he spun the driving wheel and headed for the back route.

Through the open window, gusts of spring freshness blew in from wild fields of purple chicory, white yarrow, and yellow buttercups, blanketing the grassland surrounding Moscow’s largest airport. Intermittent splats of rain on the windshield explained the lush landscape and slow speed of the van.

The passenger wheel dipped onto the dirt shoulder every now and then to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming car. I reached for the armrest but the only thing left was a miniature stereo speaker, so I hung onto the front dash as the van, with its broken windshield and leaking exhaust, slowly bumped along a road barely wide enough for one. I gritted my teeth, casting my fate to the wind, and shifted in my seat.  The driver noticed nothing.

Groves of birch trees, fluttering in the breeze, lined the road as we wound along the scenic route. I mumbled to myself, “I hope he knows what he’s doing,” and wondered if the hour drive would end up taking two. Nervous I’d miss the Bolshoi ballet that night, for which I had a $400 ticket waiting for me at the box office, I asked, “If I paid you more could you go faster?”

He gave me a strange look, as if I’d asked him to break the law.

Chill out, I told myself, knowing I had put more in my cultural bucket than two weeks could hold.

After a few silent moments he observed, “You crazy woman. Travel alone. Where husband?”

“I’m divorced. But I have a daughter.”

“I divorced too,” he confided. “Have second wife. One son.”

Our conversation was quickly absorbed by American music from the 80’s on the radio.

Along the side of the road I noticed a sign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup soccer and feeling a caffeine-induced jolt of energy from the last cup of coffee I’d forced down, I restarted my digital conversation. My phone blasted above the motor’s rumble, “I like soccer,” and pointed at the sign.

His lip turned up in disgust. “Sissies,” he spat out in Russian. The phone deciphered it back to me in English. Then his eyes lit up. “Ice hockey!” He smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

I couldn’t help but notice his silver front tooth.

Through the phone’s interpreter I asked, “Have you always been a taxi driver?” This time I checked the input. It said: Will you marry me. I giggled at the difficulty in communicating and finger combed my twenty-hours of airplane tangle, then deleted the message and tried again, pronouncing each word carefully.

He scoffed at being stereotyped as a taxi driver and threw his head back. “Military 25 years. Have pension. Now drive taxi…when I want.”

I wondered how much of that was true as we approached the urban limits. The gravel road turned into a two-lane asphalt highway. Twenty-story-tall, grey monolithic buildings loomed on both sides of the street. Lost to the abandonment of a grueling trip, I asked, “What did you do while you were in the military,” knowing I may be digging too deep—too soon.

With a hearty laugh he took his eyes off the road and pointedly glanced in my direction. “Shoot down American satellites.”

My shock at his candor must have been obvious in my bulging eyes. “Really?” I asked, then knowing I’d never see him again, I chose to follow his honest lead. “When I was in grade school, we would prepare for Russian air raid attacks by having emergency practices. Every Wednesday the sirens started at noon. We would all go under our desks. After the alarms stopped, we knew it was safe to come out. Did you do anything like that in Russia?”

He raised his eyebrows, gave me a look that clearly said, ‘another stupid American,’ and asked, “What good desk if nuclear attack?” Then he surprised me with, “It Germans we worry about. We play Russia under attack by Germans. Like Great War.” He waited as though I should share his anti-Aryan sentiments. When I said nothing, he grumbled. “They kill my father. He wounded by bomb…come home…die of infection.”

“I’m sorry,” I said automatically, while thinking the Cold War ended about twenty-five years ago yet he was reliving WWII, fifty years older than that. But since we were on the topic of warfare, I asked, “Do Russians think of ISIS as the new Germany?” I had heard about the downing of a Russian tourist plane in route to Egypt and a recent suicide bombing in the metro.

He shrugged his shoulders. “No think about terrorists. Not my problem.”

I tried to ask him how he could ignore surprise attacks on innocent civilians. But every time I put the question to my phone, the translation came back garbled. So I stopped and watched traffic.

Russian made cars, Ladas and Volgas, cruised next to Mercedes and Beamers. I did a double take.

“The economy must be good in Russia with so many expensive cars,” I observed, the surprise evident my voice.

“People spend money so look good to others. Buy i-phone, even if cost three times salary.”

I thought about how money was spent to speed things up in the US. Get there sooner. Make it happen faster. Even though convenience cost. In the US, we were willing to pay the price for time, in Russia it was ‘the look’ they wanted.

The open fields gave way to skyscraper apartments intermixed with basswood-canopied parks.  Stylishly dressed mothers in feminine flowing dresses, pushed babies in the latest high-tech strollers. Young lovers walked hand in hand. And weaving in and out of the crowds, green and purple-haired skate boarders, sporting tattoos, took advantage of the break in the clouds. It was as though I was back home. I felt unprepared for what I saw and guilty for expecting less. I had expected a society of cabbage, potatoes and busses. I had assumed I’d see a third-world landscape. Instead, the scene outside my window could have been in any upscale US suburb.

“I hear America still like Russia in 1960’s: rationing and empty stores. You have more money, but life no better,” my driver commented, seeming to read my mind about third world countries.

It was clear to me by the bravado in his voice, he ironically saw the US as a floundering country and he had no intention of hiding his opinion of Russia’s superiority. If he was going to lecture me on what a ‘sorry lot’ the US was, I was grateful I’d be out of his taxi in less than an hour.

A little too defensively I answered, “No way is life like it was in our 60’s. It’s better.” In 1960, many middle-age women, like my mother, hadn’t graduated from high school.  They stayed at home with the children. “I have an advanced degree, own my house, and travel abroad every year,” I finished.

He glowered at me, looking like he didn’t believe me. “You inherit, no?”

“I wish,” I laughed, remembering the humiliation of wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs. My parents had seven kids—and barely enough money to pay the bills.  Ever since I could remember I was determined to change my life. “Inheritance?” I answered.  “I bought everything with my own money.”

He nodded his head up and down tolerantly.

On the road ahead of us, dust spouting excavators exerted their authority and forced all vehicles to a stop. Instead of complaining, I took advantage of the log jam to bring down my indignation and get a clearer look at everything around me. Stucco siding on weathered apartments flaked off in chunks. I shivered at thoughts of the winter seeping in.  And the pot holes in the street were large enough to swallow a whole truck. It looked like an impossible task to restore in a summer’s time but the workers didn’t appear to notice. It was income.

Funny how the stuffy, smoke spewing bull dozers took me back to working my whole life in a male-dominated field. Being the only woman in the room, getting ignored, persisting, and then seeing second glances of recognition came to mind. Things have changed, and because of that my daughter’s generation expects more from the world than I thought possible. It made me proud to be from a country where pushing the career ceiling was possible. Likewise, on this trip, I declined the cruise route and chose to travel ‘my way.’ Using my cell phone’s translator, I read railroad schedules and purchased on the Russian internet; consequently some purchases resulted in questionable decisions, like the Bolshoi tickets for the night I arrived. Yet I realized it was a privilege to make those mistakes.

I thought of my daughter, bright, beautiful, and charming—everything a parent could want—except I wondered if by giving her everything I didn’t have, I’d taken challenges away from her. Life didn’t hold the same allure for her that it had for me when I had to fight for it. My mind flashed to the many young homeless wandering our streets. Times were tough, but with a little digging, opportunity was out there. Yet some invisible siren’s call held them back.

My driver pointed to a neighborhood park on my side of the street. On a wooden bench a clutch of old women in a wide assortment of peasant skirts and colorful scarves, looking like a scene from an artist’s rendering during the Tsar’s time, sat; shopping bags, spilling over with green and orange vegetables at their feet. Rain was imminent, yet they seemed happy to be together and were in no hurry to leave. In a self-reflective sigh, he scrutinized them, as though seeing more than what met the eye.

“Old ladies remind me when I very little. I go to grandmother’s wooden house in Urals. Have barrels of pickles and fish we store for winter. House heated with wood stove downstairs. All sleep in loft upstairs.  At Christmas decorate bush with no leaves. Add little things, like dry flowers. I get tail from rabbit. Poof poof poof.” He imitated brushing his cheek with a furry ball.  “I loved that tail.” He looked straight ahead in the distance and I sensed he was embarrassed at showing his emotion to a stranger—especially a woman. Almost apologetically he added, “I just small boy. House very cold. We not have much.”

“But I thought Lenin’s socialism gave everyone opportunities the Tsar had suppressed.”

“Lenin, yes. Stalin no.” He saw me watching the old women. “My mother she think Stalin handsome. My father think he strong.”

“Didn’t Stalin kill millions of people?” I asked but didn’t add, how could anyone see him as anything but a monster?

The driver studied the motionless steering wheel. Immobilized by the crush of heavy equipment, his knee bounced nervously. “Yes. Before Bolshevik Revolution the rich drink out of gold cups. But we go thirsty.” I noticed the creases in his face and wondered how old he was. “Even if Stalin guilty of many deaths, he not all bad. Russia now nation of power.”

The car in front of us lurched forward. My driver shifted the van’s gnashing gears, and we began to creep forward. Off to one side, I noticed a gold-gilded onion-domed church: a hallmark of the Russian landscape. It dwarfed everything on the block. Then without any forewarning, a cluster of white-washed Russian Orthodox churches, some with black, helmet-shaped cupolas, and others with blue or green rounded crowns, seemed to spring up like a symphony of color in every direction. This was the Russia I came to see.

“Russians must be very religious with so many churches,” my phone translated from English.

From his shirt collar, the driver pulled out a gold chain and let the cross dangle. “I wear in secret many years.” His voice cracked and he refused to make eye contact. “Mosques destroyed. Churches torn down.” He held the cross lovingly for a few minutes. “My mother hold service in our home. Many come. Say traditional prayers. Eat special foods. No tell government.”

“Do young people go to church now?” I asked, as I watched a long line of tourists inch closer to the ticket booth at the place of worship with the golden roof, thinking I may soon be one of them.

He shrugged his shoulders, “My son, he say he no need.”

“My daughter’s the same,” I moaned, but did not add, her religion was the holy joint. My stomach clenched at the thought of her lack of interest in a tomorrow and a previous fight we’d had.

She had returned home late, as usual, around three in the morning, loudly shouting goodbye to her friends in our quiet residential neighborhood. I had gotten up and put on my robe. Arms crossed, I waited for her to see me in the dimly lit hallway. “People are sleeping. You shouldn’t make so much noise,” I said, hearing my ‘mothers tone’ in my voice.

“I’ve had a hard day,” she snapped back, throwing her pack on a chair and dropping into the couch.

“It smells like you’ve been out drinking.”

“What of it. I’m old enough.” She pulled off one boot then the other, her honey-brown eyes blood shot and her once peaches and cream skin, blotchy. “Let me live my life my way, like your parents let you live yours.”

What could I say? She was an adult—but that’s what scared me. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “If you don’t go after your dreams now and work hard when you’re young, you’ll suffer the rest of your life.”

She pushed a tangle of curls behind her ear. “It’s my life, not yours,” she said, then tuned out my nagging, treating me as though I was white noise.

My time lost in self-reflection seemed to go unnoticed by the driver until he slapped his hand on the steering wheel and shook his head.  “What my son need is money. He move back home when he not have enough for rent and clean clothes. Must keep uniform clean or no job.”

I immediately thought of laundry discussions in my home. They were an ongoing battle. It was as if soap and water would wash away the essence of my daughter’s being and disturb the carefully crafted holes she’d cut in her clothes. I couldn’t count the number of times she’d moved out, came back, left again, and then returned home. Part of the problem was us baby boomers: not retiring and holding up the chain of promotions. My generation complained about the youth’s sense of entitlement, expecting immediate rights to management positions. On the other hand, the young said: Things aren’t like they were when you were young.

The driver interrupted my thoughts again. “My son, he go to America. He know what he want. He make it happen. Buy plane ticket. Cost $80. But no money for hotel. So he work for circus. Travel around country. No make much money. When circus stop, son build houses.” The driver’s pride was palpable.

Having not seen any beggars on the corners, panhandling at stop lights, or huddled under bridges, I asked, “Are there many homeless in Russia?”

As if the word did not exist in Russian, he asked, “Homeless? Communism give everyone education, medicine, and home. Apartment small—in kitchen you can touch sink with elbow, stove with hand, table with foot and door with butt. Still all have home.”

“Many of our homeless in the United States have mental health problems.” I explained and I thought of the young man who lived in a hole beneath the underpass by my house. He’d wait only a day after the police removed his belongings before he’d return. In survival mode, he’d climb over the six-foot-fence seemingly pumping more adrenaline, or some illicit drug, than any Olympic athlete in the final throes of a competition.

The driver stiffened. “If sick, then family responsible.” It was as though abandoning a relative had no place in his mind or heart.

“Yes,” I agreed, but knew families in the US no longer stuck together. They lived independently. Moved away and apart. It was how we got ahead in our careers. Reached our full potential and consequently, created new extended families who thought like us. After some time I added, “It’s hard when a homeless person is on alcohol or drugs and doesn’t want to live by family rules.”

“No drug problem in Russia,” he answered with dictatorial certainty. Or was it blindness, I wondered. Even if drugs weren’t the unsolvable dilemma they were in the US, I was sure alcoholism was a behind closed-doors problem in Russia.

“You’re lucky,” I answered, and looked away, realizing I had not seen druggies on the street nor anyone in wheelchairs. Handicap ramps seemed in short supply and I wondered if they were all trapped indoors. Not wanting to solve the world’s problems while on vacation, I searched the car-choked boulevard for something to say.  Seeing a digital billboard that promised a success and beautiful, mini-skirted blonde or a jaguar sedan, I asked, “What do Russian’s think of Putin and Trump?”

Taking my question seriously, he scratched his head and cautiously spoke into the phone. “Putin like grandmother. Never change. If she like you—you like her. Trump—he hare today, gone tomorrow.”

I smirked at his mispronunciation of here. “Well for now it looks like Putin is opening the Kremlin to the US and Trump is inviting Russia to the White House.” I knew relatives back home who adored Trump and his Elvis Presley pompadour and I had friends who were sure the Trump-Putin partnership was going to deepen our involvement in the Middle East.

As though a burning question came to mind, the car swerved before the driver righted his steering then he asked, “Is it true you no take off shoes when you go in house in America?” He rolled his eyes in disbelief. “How not bring in dirt from street?”

My mouth opened but I had nothing to say. It must’ve been the reference to the White House that prompted his urgent query. We’d always worn shoes in my home. Yes, the house got dirty. So we cleaned it. But in recent years, I’d been invited to homes where they gave you slippers when you arrived. It seemed like a good idea but I couldn’t say that one way was better than the other.

Finally, choosing my words carefully, I admitted, “Yes, we wear shoes in our houses,” then thought about it for a moment. I wondered how hard it would be to alter something so intrinsic in our culture. “I like the idea of taking them off, but change is hard.”

He nodded in agreement. “My son say if change needed he must make happen. No wait for others. Must push himself, or there be no change.” A calm came over him. “I learn from him more than he learn from me.”

I thought about my daughter, knowing she would not want change unless it had meaning for her. To find that motive, when she’d never lived a life in-need, was the obstacle I had created for her. She lived in a world with complete freedom. Free to be happy, reach her greatest dream, make her most unforgiving mistake, and live her life ‘her way,’ which was a liberty I had expected from my parents.

Before I knew it, the driver was making final turns on the narrow streets, left then right, to the address I’d sent months earlier when making the reservation online. I looked at my Fitbit. Only an hour had passed since I’d landed. He rolled to a stop and double-parked in front of a hair salon, two doors down from my AirBnB. I stepped out into a light rain and threw my day pack on my back while the driver pulled my carry-on from the van’s rear. The smell of ozone and a crisp mist awakened my tired eyes.

“Thank you.” Spaseeba my phone translated as I gathered my belongings and gave him the obligatory tip. I wondered if the differences created by our governments would continue to hold up the virtual wall between individuals. The driver and I connected for a brief moment in time, but could that bridge the cultural chasm years in the making? I was from a democracy, a world where everyone marches to their own values and his life was built upon socialism, with its interdependent dream.

He looked at me, confused. “Pazhalooysta.”  You’re welcome, he answered. “But you’ve already paid on-line.”

“This is for you,” I said, knowing they rarely tipped in his country, but his insights into the soul of Russia led me to my own self-discoveries. And they meant much more to me than a few rubles. I knew I got the better deal.

In broken English he spluttered, “Have a great…,” he hesitated.

A silence stood between us as we looked at each other, his job completed and my worries about getting to the Bolshoi long gone.

Finally I finished the sentence for him, “Life.”

ISBN 978-0-9915984-4-1

Teenage Outcasts: A Futuristic Anthology

*

UNDER  SHORT STORIES – COMING SOON

A Life for A Life – 2616 C.E.

The Reject – 2475 C.E.

Humanoid Trackers – 2226 C.E.

Four teenagers from different solar systems embark on separate quests to rid themselves of the dysfunction that wrecks their daily lives. They end up being asked to face a crisis the threatens to end the Earth.

  • Lucius and Lars live on the gas planet of Tirap in 2616 where hover boarding in a methane atmosphere and programming droids to harvest human zygotes is the only and lonely way of life.
  • Adi’s home is a space station, Procyon, in 2475. Even though she has special genetic powers that have served the other Proconites, she’s a reject and does not get their acceptance, which she desperately craves.
  • A lost civilization on Earth in 2226 is where Ozuma is taken by her hummingbird companions. There, she finds the poison to ward off Humanoid Trackers who kidnap Homo sapiens. But the vaccine she creates with the toxins isn’t enough to stop the Trackers.

Through their personal journeys, Lucius, Lars, Adi and Ozuma find what’s missing in their lives and take on a cause bigger than themselves.

Teenage Outcasts: A Futuristic Anthology  is a 24,000 word YA anthology  that introduces the Reincarnation Trilogy.

 

Cockroaches and Thai Cooking – Thailand

coackroaches

Yes, they do cook with cockroaches in Thailand. They use the body fluid as a spice.

Bangkok developed country

     To many westerners the use of insects seems primitive yet Bangkok is anything but that with skyscrapers and all the modern conveniences of any other developed country.

Bags of Blood in Bangkok Market
Bags of Blood in Bangkok Market

Having said that, go to market and you can choose the type of blood you’d like to cook with – a vampire’s fantasy.

Bangkok green is beautiful food

Vegetarians are also in tenth heaven with the wide assortment of green vegetables at market.

Shopping in Bangkok 2014jpg

You can’t be inhibited if you want to experience Thai foods – they look strange to western eyes.

Shopping in Bangkok2

But taste like nothing you can get back home. So eat well in Thailand.

soup at blue elephant

I took a cooking class at the Blue Elephant Restaurant rather than get caught in the cross fire from the political unrest at the time.

Blue Elephant Restaurant
Colonial Elegance in Blue Elephant Restaurant

The Blue Elephant class wasn’t cheap but was worth the tour of the market, five course meal, and colonial ambiance.

East Asian building

Juxtaposed between new high rises and the ferry launch in Bangkok, you can find reminders of the old colonial presence such as the historic the East Asiatic Company headquarters.

long tail boat on Chao Phraya River

Out on the Chao Phraya River, dragon boats share the waterway with modern ferries.

Watt Arun on Chao Phraya River
Watt Arun on Chao Phraya River

And long-tail boats, transporting goods, are seen passing famous sites such as Watt Arun.

Rama VIII Bridge
Rama VIII Bridge

Less famous but very impressive is the cable Rama VIII bridge.

Fight Home - End of Trip
Fight Home – End of Trip

What caught my interest during the time I was in Bangkok was the struggle between the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee and the Pheu Thai party run by Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother, the former Prime Minister, was in exile due to corruption.  Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators lined the streets, resulting in traffic jams, blocked access to the airport, killings, and eventually a coup d’etat by the military. Like so many other trips I’ve been on, I was able to catch a plane home to my secure comfortable life…for now.

Myanmar – Conflict Within – Exploitation from Outside

UNICEF poster of child soldier.
UNICEF poster of child soldier.

This is what is happening in Myanmar – children are fighting a war rather than attending school. There is a struggle between the government, who wants to claim the land and the people, who want to harvest the gold, jade, teak, and opium as they have forever.

First class sleeper on train from Mandalay to Myitkyina.
First class sleeper on train from Mandalay to Myitkyina.

I bought a ticket for a first class sleeper on the train from Mandalay to Myitkyina knowing the Kachin and Shan guerrillas were fighting in the area and it was possible the military may block my travel.

Stupas in village from train.
Stupas in village from train.

Along the way I saw reminders of the power of the Buddhists, who openly challenged the Muslims.

Fields from train.
Fields from train.

From the train, the countryside looked quiet and it appeared as though everyone lived in peace with each other.

Myitkyina train station.
Myitkyina train station.

But once I arrived Myitkyina I hit the barriers.  Note that travelers must register with Immigration at the train station or airport.

Site of historic WWII battle.
Site of historic WWII battle.

     The Myitkyina railroad station was the site of a decisive battle in World War II. Winning Myitkyina with its airstrip and rail station gave the Allies control of Northern Burma and a chance to reconnect India with China via the Burma Road.

Suprabum Road
Suprabum Road

I hoped to travel up the Suprabum Road to the Hukwang Valley but was stopped by Immigration.

Myitkyina market
Myitkyina market

So I visited the local market and tried to regroup.

Unusual fruits
Unusual fruits

The fruits are unlike anything I’ve seen in the western world.

Medicine vendor
Medicine vendor

This woman kindly refused to accept payment for cold medicine I received from her – I had gotten very sick from the train ride.

Natural rememdies
Natural rememdies

They don’t have pharmacies in Myitkyina  but a wide assortment of natural remedies are sold at market.

Chinese in Myanmar
Chinese in Myanmar

I was struck by the presence of so many Chinese in the area.         Later I would find out why.

Tuktuk and motor bikes
Tuktuk and motor bikes

I paid for a driver and motorbike to take me to the Mogaung Valley. I had a map from the main Immigration office in Myitkyina  showing where I was allowed to travel.

Road to Mogaung
Road to Mogaung

     The road to Mogaung, or where the Chindits defeated the Japanese in World War II to secure the Allies position in Myitkyina, was dull… at first. Later I was interrogated by Immigration guards on my return to town. The poor boy driving the motor bike practically peed in his pants, understandably, when the gun toting military questioned us. So many are being killed in the battle between the government and the tribes over land rights.

Road will last only a couple of years.
Road will last only a couple of years.

     On the way to Mogaung we were subject to delays on the new road the Chinese were building. Note the meager layers of bedding, gravel, and asphalt slurry. This road will last only a couple years.

Hauling slurry seal in bucket
Hauling slurry seal in bucket

Chinese and the locals worked side by side carrying boiling asphalt tar buckets – something the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the US would faint at.

Men women children road workers

Men, women and children worked to build a road to the wilderness.  Why?

Mining in Myanmar
Mining in Myanmar

Access to the jade and gold mines and transport teak logs.

Mining in Myanmar people and equip2

Ko Zaw Pharkant, a photographer who lives in Myitkyina, took the photos of the mines.

Another mine

It’s easy to scorn the devastation of land from mining.

Mining in Myanmar land

But how many of us wear gold or jade jewelry or have purchased teak furniture, boxes, or trinkets?

Mining in Mynamar equipment

It’s not so much that there is mining in Myanmar. They should use the country’s natural wealth to improve the standard of living.

Mining Myanmar land and lodging

Yet the mining in Myanmar is excessive and the wealth is not going to the people of Myanmar but to their trusted neighbor-the Chinese.

Roof tops in Myitkyina
Roof tops in Myitkyina

     Myitkyina is one of the cities benefiting from this exploitation of resources. Not only are the Chinese building roads to harvest Myanmar’s wealth but there is an agreement between the two countries to build dams that would change life for those downstream on the Chindwin and Irrawaddy Rivers, forever.

Myitkyina airport terminal

The Myitkyina Airport looks prosperous.

Expanding Myitkyina airport strip
Expanding Myitkyina airport strip

     But at what cost?  Note the woman on the right in the above photo is carrying a pan of scalding asphalt to cover the thin layer of gravel on the airport runway the Chinese are expanding.

The airstrip improvements will last only a few years.
The airstrip improvements will last only a few years.

     The Chinese are quickly harvesting the wealth of Myanmar but not sharing the spoils with the locals.     Who will stop them?

train ride shack in field

On November 8, 2015 Aung San Suu Kyi’s party gained control of parliament (Hluttaw) who is in the position to elect the next president of Myanmar.  Suu Kyi proactively reached out to the over 135 tribes and 55 parties in Myanmar before elections, including those in the Kachin and Shan states, where the civil war continues.

Myitkyina passenger airport
Beautification of Myitkyina Airport

Suu Kyi cannot become president because Burmese law states anyone with “legitimate children” who owe an allegiance to foreign powers is ineligible.  She has two sons with British passports. It is thought she will rule a puppet president from a parliament seat.

Myitkyina WWII Airfield in background Where Historic Battle was fought
Myitkyina WWII airfield in background. Site of Merrill’s Marauders historic battle.

     Will Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy (NLD) be the harbinger of change that will lead Myanmar out of religious conflict (Buddhist against Muslim), find an economic solution (sign a truce with all tribes), and protect the natural resources of Myanmar from exploitation by their world neighbors?

World’s Largest Book – MANDALAY

 

The Kuthudaw Pagoda in Mandalay is surround by 729 Stupas

729 stone inscription caves mandalay
729 Stupas surrounding Kuthudaw Pagoda

Within each stupa, marble slabs hold inscriptions that make up the worlds largest book.

Marble Slab with Written History
Marble Slab with Written History

Other than the monks that tend the site, the pagoda is an amazingly quiet site with very few tourists.

Kuthudaw Pagoda
Kuthudaw Pagoda

Mandalay, one of the largest cities in Myanmar, is home to a large population of monks.

High rise Buddhist Monastary
High rise Buddhist Monastary

There are several monasteries throughout the city. Surprisingly they are very modern and appear to be comfortable.

Buy lottery tickets here.
Buy lottery tickets here.

     For all its tradition, Mandalay is a city of change with lotteries juxtaposed next to temples and a large gold market attracting tourist on the lookout for inexpensive jewelry.  Those who plan to buy gold in Mandalay should ask whether the gem inset is real. Many times the gold is real but the gem is not and likewise, real gems are often set in cheap gilded metal. So ask the vendor what’s real.

Mya Nan San Kyaw, last Royal Burmese palace
Mya Nan San Kyaw, last Royal Burmese palace

The last royal Burmese palace is in Mandalay. It’s a lovely area to bicycle around.

 

Chindwin River Part II: Sometimes a Great Notion: Bamboo/Teak/Gold

There are plans to construct a dam upriver from Homalin to serve the Chinese. It will impact life along the Chindwin in the future.

Typical bamboo raft to transport goods locally.
Typical bamboo raft to transport goods locally.

Many houses on the river were made of teak. But in other parts of the country, where teak was not just outside the back door, homes or bashas were made of bamboo.  As in India, bamboo is used for everything, from paper to particle board to knit hats.

Commercial bamboo boat
Commercial bamboo boat

With all the teak logging on the Chindwin, one would think teak grew like weeds…well perhaps it did in the past but it is quickly being depleted. Some old practices still exist but modern equipment is being introduced.

Oxen used to haul cut logs instead of skidders
Oxen used to haul cut logs instead of skidders

To germinate teak seeds, they must be placed in a fire, then soaked in water. It takes 45 days for the seeds to germinate.

Dozer lining up logs while workers have some fun in the water.
Dozer lining up logs while workers have some fun in the water.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Myanmar has implemented British Forestry practices, with a 60 year rotation for teak wood. But given the number of logs being harvested, the regeneration quantity will not meet the harvesting volumes.

Ready to be loaded.
Ready to be loaded.

Logs are milled within the country rather than exported abroad to foreign mills where the finished product fetches a higher price.

Ready to be put into rafts
Ready to be put into rafts

Due to a lack of roads in this region, most of the logs are tied together as a raft to be transported to the mill.  While watching the log rafts move down river, the novel Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey came to my mind.

Teak raft. Sometimes a Great Notion: Chindwin River January 2014
Teak raft. Sometimes a Great Notion: Chindwin River January 2014

The teak industry is labor intensive. It requires a mobile infrastructure that moves from one log camp to the next, once a site has been harvested.  Barrels of oil are shipped to the roving logging camps to power portable generators.

Oil barrels transported to logging camps.
Oil barrels transported to logging camps.

Men are needed to cut, load, grade and track the trees. Wayward teak rafts are known to disappear before reaching their final mill destination.

Government permit tracker and log grader
Government permit tracker and log grader

Accounting records held by one government official showed 100 logs that ranged in size from 12ft diameter x 25ft long to 7ft diameter x 22 ft long weighing 287,000 tonnes within one log raft. Logs that size are most likely from virgin forests, soon to be extinct. But what are the alternatives to teak production? Gold, jade, and opium.

Surface gold mine. Hydraulic river mining next?
Surface gold mine. Hydraulic river mining next?

Gold and jade mines provide get-rich-quick job opportunities, but since this work is far from home, the men become bored. Enterprising dealers find ways to help them spend their free time and money on other forms of entertainment, such as opium.  It’s not unusual for men to become trapped by the good money and drugs.

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Chindwin River Part I: Travel Along the Chindwin

Tied up dugout on Chindwin River.
Tied up dugout on Chindwin River.

In January 2014 the Chindwin River was not a popular destination for foreigners. I saw no other Caucasian on the voyage traveling upriver between Monywa and Homalin.  I was asked several times if I was a missionary (what did that mean?)

Girls I met on river.
Girls I met on river.

The blog below is for those considering a similar trip. Without my guide, Mr. Saw, I would not have been able to purchase boat tickets and find the guest houses at each stop in less than the four days it took us to travel. Unfortunately, my time was limited. But I suggest others allow for more time in each village and schedule buffer time for the inevitable delays. Costs below are listed in Kyats, which at the time of my trip had a conversion ratio of 1000 Kyats (pronounced chats) to $1 USD. Carry both small denominations of Kyats for river travel and USD for places where they won’t take Kyats from foreigners. 

First Class on the Chindwin
First Class on the Chindwin

January 3, 2014 Leave Monywa by boat at 3 a.m.  Arrive Kalewa 5:30 p.m. The trip along the parallel road takes 10 hours.

First class seats.
First class seats.

First class entertainment was a TV at the front of the boat. High pitch Burmese songs blared non-stop from 3 a.m. until 3 p.m. I was thankful for the cushioned seat rather than a hard bench seat for 14 hours.

Second class seats.
Second class seats.

Boat Cost for 1st class was: 33,000 Kyats for foreigners 17,000 Kyats for local residents.

Life along the river is simple. Porters come in handy on these steep slopes.
Life along the river is simple. Porters come in handy on these steep slopes.

Porters charged 500 kyats to carry my 50 pound bag up the hill.

First class meal. Guess where the styrofoam goes?
First class meal. Guess where the styrofoam goes?
Food on the boat came with the ticket but dinner in the village cost about 1500 Kyats
Guest house on Chindwin.
Guest house on Chindwin.
The guest house in Kalewa cost 6000 Kyats  Electricity was on from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.  This is important if you want to charge a phone or computer. I used only the phone’s camera, since there was no cell coverage. Some villages had internet connections when there was electricity but most of the time the internet was down.
Looking west to Chin Mountains and route to Kalaymo on right. Bridge across Myittha leads south to Monywa
Looking west to Chin Mountains and route to Kalaymo on right. Bridge across Myittha leads south to Monywa

Many foreigners traveling down the river from Homalin stop at Kalewa then fly out of Kalaymo, which is inland rather than continue on the Chindwin to Monywa. The distance  from Kalewa to Kalaymo is 20 km or a 2 hr truck ride . If you want to go further  to Kennedy Peak, the route the 1942 Ragoon residents took to evade the Japanese, is 70 km (or an additional 50 km west): a 4 hr truck ride. 

Coal from the local hills.
Coal from the local hills.
Sedimentary rock (sandstone) is found along the river, but in the foothills coal and natural gas is mined.

January  4, 2014  Leave Kalewa by boat at 11 a.m. Arrive Mawlaik 5:00 p.m. Travel from Kalewa to Mawlaik by road is not possible.

Bridge in background collapsed from monsoon floods and earthquakes.
Bridge in background collapsed from monsoon floods and earthquakes.

At least one bridge was down. If the bridge was serviceable the road between Kalewa and Mawlaik is 36 km or a 3 hour drive.  Without the road, residents had to take the boat and board midstream where the river was too shallow for the boat to go to shore.

Midstream boarding included taking a dugout to the commercial boat.
Midstream boarding included taking a dugout to the commercial boat.

After Kalewa, first class travel changed from cushioned seats to shared metal boxes. A log grader and government lumber inspector shared the first class box with me and my guide. It held 6 adults and was, 4 feet high by 10 feet wide by 8 feet long with a cotton cloth covering a metal floor.

First class box was 4ft x 10ft x 8ft. Day packs are 18 inches high.
First class box was 4ft x 10ft x 8ft. Day packs are 18 inches high.

The cost of a 1st class box between Kalewa and Mawlaik was 20,000 Kyats. 

On board, you could buy from the kitchen (this photo) or from midriver or shore food vendors.
On board, you could buy from the kitchen (this photo) or from midriver or shore food vendors.

Dinner and breakfast in Mawlaik cost 6000 Kyats,  The guest house cost 10,000 Kyats but that was because I stayed longer than 24 hours or beyond the 2 p.m. cut off time.  The Guesthouse, which was located across the street from the police station, let me use their bicycle for free to tour the village.  All guest houses have TVs. It was a good opportunity to sit with the locals and observe or interact.

Riverside restaurant.
Riverside restaurant.

I met many geologists during my trip on the river. They were on the river conducting investigations for coal and natural gas. Another natural resource was sand, which was excavated and exported for construction purposes.  Unfortunately, the sand excavation resulted in undermining the banks along the river.

Typical settlement along the river.
Typical settlement along the river.
January 5, 2014 Leave Mawlaik by boat at 5:45 p.m.  Arrive in Homalin 2 p.m. on January 6. 
No electronics here. Day time travel was best with manual depth finder for sandbars.
No electronics here. Day time travel was best with manual depth finder for sandbars.
The boat grounded at 9 p.m. and for one hour all the men got off the boat to rock it free. They were unable to push it off the sandbar like they had earlier. So a tug boat was called up from Mawlaik to pull us out to deeper water. Men stationed on each side of the boat use simple bamboo poles and probed the water to determine depth. 
Getting from the front to the back of the boat required shimmying along narrow walkway before climbing into the metal 1st class box.
Getting from the front to the back of the boat required shimmying along narrow walkway before climbing into the metal 1st class box.
Later we got stuck on another sandbar at 2 a.m.  It was too dark to continue, so they shut down the boat until daylight, or  6 a.m. Getting up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse and shimmying along the narrow walkway with a fast flowing river over the edge was quite an experience – But the stars in the night sky were spectacular.
Outhouse on boat - guess where it all goes.
Outhouse on boat – guess where it all goes.
The lights in the 1st class box stayed on all night, making sleep difficult. The sounds through the paper thin walls of snoring, farting, crying babies, and the cold metal floor, as well as gasoline smelling like it had an additive of naphthalene, made sleep impossible.
Sights along the Chindwin.
Sights along the Chindwin.

To see villages, stupas, and trade along the river was worth the inconvenience. This stretch of the river includes jade and surface gold mines, and, like the rest of the river, a lot of teak logging. Early the next morning, in the dense fog, the vendor boats arrived to sell “fast food.” 

Chindwin River Fast Food vendor boat.
Chindwin River Fast Food vendor boat.
The log grader and government lumber official got off at one of the logging stops along the river. In their place, a woman who sold betel nuts to support her entire family, got on to share the 1st class box. She talked, or perhaps it was the betel nut that talked, nonstop for 3 hours.
Boarding midriver was a challenge.
Boarding midriver was a challenge.
An alternative to river travel from Mawlaik to Homalin is a 100 km road on the east side of the Chindwin River. It’s a 2 day ride, depending upon the weather.
Chain of stupas accessed only from the river.
Chain of stupas accessed only from the river.

The cost of a 1st class box between Mawlaik and Homalin was 30,000 Kyats for foreigners. Food on the boat was 5000 Kyats. Once I arrived in Homalin, dinner in town was 2250 Kyats. There are more guest houses in Homalin than in the other villages along the river, but most were full when we arrived at 2:30 p.m. So I ended up at one of the simple places for 10,000 Kyats per room. They kindly provided a pail of heated water for a bucket shower.

Peanut field in flower.
Peanut field in flower.

Due to the delay on the river, we arrived at the Myanma Airlines office in Homalin at 2:30  p.m. We had to wait around until 5:30 p.m. before tickets could be purchased because there were reservations for all the seats. There are only two airlines that fly into Homalin, so departure from Homalin was limited to 3 times per week. If I didn’t catch the plane I would have been in Homalin another 4 days. That would have meant missing other sites I wanted to see in Myanmar. 

Homalin boat landing.
Homalin boat landing.
Myanma Airline staff graciously sent a local boy to all the homes and guesthouses of those with flight reservations to see if there would be any no-shows. There were four cancellations. The plane ticket for a foreigner cost $90 US (must be USD and exact amount) and for locals it cost 64,000 Kyats. Plus there’s a charge of 2000 Kyats for non-carryon luggage. 
Homalin is a relatively large city. I guess around 100,000.
Homalin is a relatively large city. I guess around 100,000.

January 7, 2014 The plane left in the morning around 8 a.m. The same people who sold the tickets in town, processed tickets at the airport, checked baggage, and served as security before boarding.  This meant if you were in town and had questions while they were at the airport, you had to wait until the plane departed. There was a separate inspection of my purse, which was conducted in a dark closet by a female employee. I don’t think she could see anything. Be sure to reserved 4000 kyats for the taxi to the airport (which was basically the back of a truck.)

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Stilwell’s 1942 Retreat from Burma through Homalin

January 6, 2014

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Looking west from Homalin from where Stilwell crossed the Chindwin River in 1942.
Looking west from Homalin from where Stilwell crossed the Chindwin River in 1942.

On May 12, 1942 General Joseph Stilwell led 114 Americans, British, Chinese and Burmese into Homalin. The next day they crossed the Chindwin River. They started in Maymyo on May 1 and arrived in Imphal, India on May 20.  Stilwell knew the Japanese were on their heels so he set a tough pace: fourteen miles per day at 105 steps per minute. Fifty minutes of marching per hour with a ten minute break. The Japanese arrived in Homalin only a day after Stilwell’s group crossed the Chindwin. In those three weeks they marched through jungles and up mountains, losing an average of 25 lbs per person.

On May 24, 1942  Stilwell gave an interview to a New Delhi reporter, “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.”

We always hear about the Allies journeys through exotic lands. But who did they pass along the way?  Below is a day by day summary of Stilwell’s retreat and the problems they encountered with photos from Homalin of the type of people they may have passed along the way.

Known as Chin Lone in Myanmar and Sepak Takraw in other Asian countries, this game of kick-volleyball should be an Olympic sport.
Known as Chin Lone in Myanmar and Sepak Takraw in other Asian countries, this game of kick-volleyball should be an Olympic sport.

April27, 1942 Heard an ugly rumor from Limie: the Chinese are leaving Lashio (about 100 miles east). Chiang Kai-shek (CKS) said to stay in Burma. Sixty boats sunk by Japanese on Irrawaddy. Flew all the British women out of and most of the Head Quarters crowd.

This child followed me for blocks for a photo - what a cutie.
This child followed me for blocks for a photo – what a cutie.

April 29, 1942 Swebo hit by 27 Japanese bombers.

April 30, 1942 Officers are beginning to lose their grip, squabbling over rice and trucks. Lashio was taken. Ava Bridge over Irrawaddy blown-up by Chinese to stop Japanese. Imminent danger of disintegration and collapse.

Love those lunch boxes.
Love those lunch boxes.

May 1, 1942 Japanese on Maymyo road. Started evacuation from  Maymyo 6 am. Arrived in Zigon 10 pm. Car stalled. Three hour delay.

May 2, 1942 Left Zigon at 6 am arrived in Pintha at 11 PM. Battled along oxen-trails. Dr. Seagrave got some medical equipment off a bull cart.  Had a bath using a farm well.

These teachers motioned me over for photo of their flowers.
These teachers motioned me over for photo of their flowers.

May 3,1942 Left Pintha at 6:30 am arrived in Wuntho at 9:30 pm CKS says to go to Myitkyina. Tomorrow we’ll head towards Mogaung. Need to decide whether to wait three days for elephants to carry food or forage later. Bridges needed repair before trucks could cross. Sent mules ahead to cross Chindwin at Kalewa then travel through Kalemyo to Tedim.

Flowers - one of the better things in life.
Flowers – one of the better things in life.

May 5, 1942  Myitkyina out. Had to make a decision whether to take the route to Tamu, due west of Mawlaik on Chindwin or head towards Kawlum and cross Chindwin from Homalin. Chose Homalin. Heard elephants trumpeting in the woods. Broken gas line in car. Another car got stuck in sand. Limie’s truck blocked ford in river: didn’t want to get his feet wet. Had to abandon all vehicles and find other crossing. Serious fords to cross with monsoon. Saw head man at village.  Said all coolies went south.  Will take 10 days to get rafts or next village has 60 porters and mules. Good eggs (people) here.

In a country at poverty level, who buys flowers? Must be a priority for some.
In a country at poverty level, who buys flowers? Must be a priority for some.

May 6, 1942 Late start at 3:30 am. Last radio message – destroyed radio

May 7, 1942 Arrived in Magyigan. Hard going across river. Some carried mattresses and bedding. Stripped everyone down to only 10 lbs per person. Of the 12 officers 4 are seriously ill. Merrill fell face first. Christ but we are a poor lot. Marched down the middle of Chaungyyi River rather than fight the vegetation along the shore.

Aren't their smiles contagious?
Aren’t their smiles contagious?

May 8, 1942 Arrived in Saingkyu. Chattering monkeys in jungle. Japanese bombers overhead. We’re not out yet. Had tea and good sleep.

May 9, 1942 Arrived in Maingkaing – Charged by rogue elephant. Began travel on flat bed raft with bamboo hand poles on Uyu River.

Homalin is a large city similar to Monwya, which has a population of 150,000.
Homalin is a large city similar to Monwya, which has a population of 150,000.

May 10, 1942 Put Seagraves Burmese nurses on roof of rafts. Nice ride but too damn slow. Took break at 22:00 then poled all night on river.

May 11, 1942  Rain. That’s ominous. Had a hell of a time getting everyone going. Big chicken dinner.  Off again at 22:00. Many snags and rafts breaking up. Rumor preparations made for us in Homalin.

Homalin and Monywa are the two big towns on the Chindwin.
Homalin and Monywa are the two big towns on the Chindwin.

 May 12, 1942 Arrived in Homalin. It’s Mother’s Day. No one’s here. Commissioner up river. Camped in temple.

May 13, 1942 Left at 6 am and traveled 3 miles north of Homalin to cross Chindwin by dugout. After we crossed, one of the guerilla leaders took his horse through the chowline. “What will I do with him?” Thunderstorm ahead.

Homalin ahead traveling from south. Notice good-luck leaves in bow. North of Homalin the river is very shallow. High risk of bottoming out.
Homalin ahead traveling from south. Notice good-luck leaves in bow. North of Homalin the river is very shallow. High risk of bottoming out.

May 14, 1942 Passed by bright green snake. Sissy Brig complaining. Climbed in heavy rains to Kawlum. Met British relief expedition with ponies, medical supplies and food.

May 15, 1942 Time change. Beautiful view of Mainpur Hills.

Homalin looking south in January. Imagine Chindwin River during monsoon.
Homalin looking south in January. Imagine Chindwin River during monsoon.

May 16, 1942 Met Tangkhul bearers. Fine people. Haircut like Iroquois. Men wore g-string sashes. Arrived in Chamu – beautiful view. Thatched covered bridge. Coolies built me a house in an hour.

May 17. 1942 Seventeen miles to Pushing. Naga came out with rice wine to welcome “great man.” Pushing like Alaska with totem pole boards. Saw Tangkhul with safety pin earring.

Teens seem to be the same world-wide. Note 'pinky' connection between 3 Chin girls.
Teens seem to be the same world-wide. Note ‘pinky’ connection between 3 Chin girls.

May 18, 1942 Six miles to Ukhrul. Noisy night with bugs. Tangkhuls wear a ring on their dink while working in the fields with the women. Women strip down to nothing with the heat. Imphal bombed again.

May 19, 1942 Rained. Passed through Limpo. Made 21 miles. Got cigarettes and chocolate.

May 20, 1942 Rained all night. Cordial reception by Limies. The PA, an old fart, didn’t know I wanted him to forward radio message from May 6. Colossal Jackass.

General Joseph Stilwell, WWII leader and great historian.
General Joseph Stilwell, WWII leader and great historian.

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Mawlaik has a Golf Course: British Raj in Myanmar

January 5, 2014

U Thant Zin - Mawlaik's local historian.
U Thant Zin – Mawlaik’s local historian.

I borrowed a bicycle and joined U Thant Zin for a tour of the Victorian Village in Mawlaik.

Mawlikbritish1916

Let me take you back to 1916.

Par 2
Par 2

To support the teak trade along the Chindwin, the British imported their way of life from back home. So Mawlaik has a golf course, although the grass is not always cut these days.

Welcome to the club house.
Welcome to the club house.

 And where there’s a golf course there’s a club house.

Imagine it's 1920, someone's behind the bar and the tables are filled with expats.
Imagine it’s 1920, someone’s behind the bar and the tables are filled with expats.

 The club house appears to have been the center of social gatherings during the British occupation.

Having drinks on the veranda while the golfers play.
Having drinks on the veranda while the golfers play.

I suggest that you read Burmese Days to get an understanding of how important the club house was to those wanting to keep a link to the mother land which was at least a month long journey back home.

Parade ground - for what?
Parade ground – for what?

I’m not sure what they would be showing at a parade ground. The terrain is not conducive to raising horses and Mawlaik was not a big military site.  Maybe they used the grounds to play croquet or futball.

Two story government office built in 1916
Two story government office built in 1916

The teak trade must have been brisk for the British to have built such a large government building in such a remote area. My question is: what kind of work would the government employees do?

Notice use of Underwood typewriters.
Notice use of Underwood typewriters.

 What struck me about the current use of the government offices was that the Burmese appear to be temporary tenants, ready to pick up and move.  Nothing seems permanent.

Mawlaik Courtroom
Mawlaik Courtroom

Some offices remain empty, like the court room.

British jail in Mawlaik
British jail in Mawlaik

 When U Thant Zin and I passed by the jail, he just shook his head. I guess that was statement enough.

British hospital no longer in use except for solar panel, laundry and grazing.
British hospital no longer in use except for solar panel, laundry and grazing.

There’s a new hospital in Mawlaik built adjacent to the old one. Surprisingly, the old one is not being used. The old brick building is not seismically stable and Mawlaik has seen a number of earthquakes.

For whites only.
For whites only.

U Thant Zin sounded bitter when we walked around what he called the “white section” of the hospital.  They have torn down the Burmese section of the hospital.

Mawlikchurch

What would any Victorian Village be without a Christian church?

Church bell tower
Church bell tower

It even had a bell tower. Imagine hearing it every Sunday or maybe there were even weddings. I heard Caucasian women were imported from Britain for just such purposes.

Mawliksuperintendenthouseoutside2
British Commissioner’s house.

Since Mawlik was ruled by the British, they needed a Government Commissioner and he needed lodging.

Grand entrance to the Commissioner's house.
Grand entrance to the Commissioner’s house.

 Currently, the Myanmar government is investing some funds into the restoration of the old British buildings.

Doesn't look like anyone's coming to dinner.
Doesn’t look like anyone’s coming to dinner.

But I didn’t see any work being done while I was there.

Teak wood throughout Commissioner's house.
Teak wood throughout Commissioner’s house.

I was surprised the flooring was not teak but either tile or linoleum. Maintaining buildings and in particular the wood is expensive in the hot humid climate along the Chindwin.  It was phenomenal that these buildings were still standing. They’d be perfect as a back drop in some BBC movie.  

Bedroom - notice fireplace
Bedroom – notice fireplace

The bedrooms appeared to serve as housing for Burmese employees. Again, there was a sense of temporary use.

Officer's house back stairs
Officer’s house back stairs

Wherever there are government officials, there are government officers to protect them. Their homes were not as elaborate as the superintendents.

Luxury crapper
Luxury crapper

But, they were fancy enough to have a western style crapper.

Mawlikofficerfireplace

U Thant Zin said only British buildings had fireplaces.

Mawlikofficersalonwithshrine

There hasn’t been much entertaining in the officer’s salon in recent years, so the current landlords have converted it into a Buddhist shrine.

Outback in the kitchen
Outback in the kitchen

All British kitchens were kept separate from the rest of the house. As noted in Kalewa, fires are not unusual and rebuilding the kitchen is much easier than the whole house.

Landlords kitchen today
Landlords kitchen today

Today, they caretakers have moved the kitchen into the main building.  Yet notice how temporary it looks.

Two-man saw
Two-man saw

I can’t imagine them using these “two-man” saws today. But if they still use oxen to haul the logs to the river, then maybe they don’t have chainsaws large enough to cut the teak lumber.

British staff housing
British staff housing

British staff were needed to manage the locals.

British Forester's house - in use today by Burmese Forester.
British Forester’s house – in use today by Burmese Forester.

And the British Forester must have been as important as the Commissioner. You can tell by the size of the house.

Mawlikflowers

But all that remains from the Victorian era are the buildings. In 1942 the Japanese invaded Burma and the British fled to India. The Raj has not returned. It is up to you to use your imagination and fill these buildings in with the people who lived and died there.

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Mawlaik-Not Just Any Village on the Chindwin River: The Battle of Imphal, 1944

January 4, 2014

 

Aren't they sweet?
Aren’t they sweet?

 Mawlaik is a close-knit village 10,000 strong in the township of Mawlaik which has only 100,000 inhabitants. It was the center for British teak logging in the 20th century.

Locals boarding boat on Chindwin.
Locals boarding boat on Chindwin.

Given the bridge to Mawlaik from Kalewa was severed by monsoon rains and earthquakes and the road to Homalin is almost a two day ride away, most people reach Mawlaik by boat.

Arrival in Mawlaik from Chindwin.
Arrival in Mawlaik from Chindwin.

When traveling to remote areas, it helps to visualize the arrival point. Mawlaik is located at the top of a steep sandstone bank. I was happy to pay $0.50 to have a porter haul my bag up that hill.  

Boat tied up on slope during dry season.
Boat tied up on slope during dry season.

 During the monsoon, the Chindwin River swells, flooding launching areas that are inaccessible during the dry season.  

Eroded walkway and former boat launch.
Eroded walkway and former boat launch.

At one time they had established docking facilities, but the banks were continually eroded away by monsoon rains and the locals dredged sand for construction. The slope became inaccessible.

Concrete road constructed by hand
Mawlaik is a village that works together.  At the top of the eroded bank the road had crumbled. So a new road had to be built. The women worked side-by-side with the men, laying the gravel bedding while the men used a portable cement mixer to prepare the concrete, and then leveled the grade. All of this was completed by hand.
Typical house in Mawlaik with clay water jugs out front

Next to the construction site was a permanent water station, much like our drinking fountains. These water posts, maintained by the locals, are found throughout Myanmar. This simple act of generosity exemplifies the kind of people you find in Myanmar.

Mawlaik tea house
So how does one get to know a small village like Mawlaik? A good place to start is at the local tea house.

A TV was wedged in the corner of this riverside restaurant playing Myanmar's version of Next Top Idol, only their stars were painted-up 10-year-old girls.
A TV was wedged in the corner of this riverside restaurant playing Myanmar’s version of Next Top Idol, only their stars were painted-up 10-year-old girls.

Meat is scarce along the river. But soups are offered morning, noon and night. Personally, I did not like their traditional morning fish soup, but don’t miss their fried tofu paddies.

Sponge from local market added to fish soup.
Sponge from local market added to fish soup.

Most of their food is fried in oil, which can be a fire risk.

Vegetables, herbs and tubers new to my taste buds.
Vegetables, herbs and tubers new to my taste buds.

There is plenty of bottled water or tea for when you’re thirsty. Unfortunately, most women don’t drink beer. So I got a few questioning looks when I ignored that custom. Other than administrative buildings, there are no restaurants or other reminders to show travelers this town had been under British rule.

Teak forest at 20 years. Usually harvested at 60 year rotations. Notice straight trunks.
 After the British left, the people continued to work in the teak industry. They implemented many of the British forestry practices.
Teak raft hauling about 100 logs down Chindwin River to mill.
Locals work in the lumber mill across the river. They drive the river rafts that transport logs weighing up to 300 tonnes downstream.
Man on left is government permitting official. Man on right is teak lumber grader.

Some grade the lumber before sending it to market. Others represent the government, and ensure that the logs traveling down the river are permitted and not stolen.

Food shipped from nearby settlements to market.
In addition to teak logging, villagers from neighboring settlements work the land and bring their goods to the local market in Mawlaik.
Betel nuts are seeds from palms, not nut trees.
Bamboo, gold, natural gas, tea and betel nut are other local cash crops.
Betel nuts and leaves used to wrap betel chew.

A woman I met on the boat, sold enough betel nuts to villages along the Chindwin, to support her entire family, and she put her two children through higher education. I couldn’t understand a word she said in Burmese. But what ever it was, she talked non-stop for three hours straight.  I think it was the betel nut talking for her.

Betel stained mouth.
Needless to say, betel nut is the preferred stimulant in Myanmar as opposed to cigarettes. It stains the teeth red; vampire red. But no one seems to notice.

Mawlikmonkfoodrun

In each village, the locals support the Buddhist monks.  Every morning, the monks walk from house to house with their eating utensils in hand, knowing locals will fill their bowls.  Some monks push carts throughout town, collecting from restaurants and businesses, to feed those that cannot go out on their own.

mawlikstreet

Life is simple in Mawlaik. Homes are usually made of wood with open-air windows. Most walk or ride bicycles.

Guest house on Chindwin River
There are a few guesthouses for travelers, usually filled with geologists exploring the land for oil and minerals.
Mawlaik Police Station
The guest house where I stayed was across the street from the police station. I found I was treated kindly if I reported my presence upon arrival.
U Thant Zin’s home and the local English school
Once it was know an English speaking tourist had arrived, the locals sent me to U Thant Zin, a 75 year old elder.
U Thant Zin’s students with open classroom in background.
Education is mandatory in Myanmar to the age of nine. Yet there is so much more to learn. U Thant Zin has taken it upon himself to teach English. He is also the local historian, passing down tales from the past to his students.
Mawlaik Forestry office where Japanese committed suicide after Battle of Imphal, 1944.
One of his stories includes the 1944 Battle at Imphal. The Japanese stormed Mawlaik after crossing the Chindwin. Then they marched through the mountains bordering India and Burma to Imphal, the China-Burma-India (CBI) headquarters for the British during WWII. The Japansese lost at Imphal and had to retreat. The Japanese who were injured or sick with malaria and typhus were abandoned in Mawlaik.  Those men committed suicide in the local Forestry office. U Thant Zin joked that given the shortage of balls after the war, the Japanese heads were later used by the children as futballs (soccer).
From bank along Mawlaik looking east across the Chindwin. The river floods to the far hills during the monsoon.

With all the unexplored wilderness and resources Myanmar has to offer, there’s no doubt that the villages along the Chindwin will host more and more tourists in the future.

U Thant Zin’s student and my market guide.
When they arrive, U Thant Zin’s students will be there to carry on his tradition.

 

 

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Kalewa: 1942 Evacuation Route from Rangoon to India

January 3, 2014 After the fall of Rangoon in April, 1942, a bailey bridge was shipped to Shwegyn, ten km south of Kalewa, where those fleeing the Japanese 55th Divison were trapped on the east side of the Chindwin River.

Entrance to Kalewa from Chindwin River
Entrance to Kalewa from Chindwin River

The Rangoon residents then crossed the Chindwin and started the second leg of the evacuation route, on elephants or by foot, up the Moutaka Road along mountainous paths to Imphal, India . The route became known as the India-Myanmar Friendship Road.

indiamyanmarfriendshiproad

This town of 16,000 people, at the junction of two rivers, the Chindwin and Myittha, is approximately 115 years-old. To the east are the Swe Tha Min (Golden Deer) Mountains

Looking south-east on the Chindwin at Swe Tha Min (Golden Deer) Mountains. Note the junction with the Myittha River on the right.
Looking south-east on the Chindwin at Swe Tha Min (Golden Deer) Mountains. Note the junction with the Myittha River on the right.

On the west, towards India, are the Chin Mountains. Kalewa  continues to be a river and road link between Burma and India.

Looking west to the Chin Mountains. Note the bridge in the background, crossing the Myittha River, to the road leading south to Monywa
Looking west to the Chin Mountains. Note the bridge in the background, crossing the Myittha River, to the road leading south to Monywa

The local guesthouses are filled with businessmen interested in gold mining and teak lumber.

kaleguesthouse

And a few travelers, like me, who are not accustomed to squat toilets,

guesthousetoilet

bucket showers,

Hot water? Dream on.
Hot water? Dream on.

or having electricity only three hours a day, from six to nine in the evening, when phones and computers can be charged.

Lights out at 9 pm
Lights out at 9 pm

Other people make their living from tea, betel nuts,

A popular red 'chew' rolled in leaves, is lime paste, tobacco and betel nut.
A popular red ‘chew’ rolled in leaves, is lime paste, tobacco and betel nut.

 and coal.

About 100 pounds of coal on her head
About 100 pounds of coal on her head

According to the seventy-one-year-old elder, U Pho Htsin, the British came in 1885. Most of the original inhabitants were Chin and Naga from India.

Kalewa elder, U Pho Htsin
Kalewa elder, U Pho Htsin

Now, 40% are Chin, 58% Burmese and 2% from India with 98% Buddhist and the remaining population Hindu or Christian.

Young Chin boys wearing longyi typical of region
Young Chin boys wearing longyi typical of region

The monsoon, from June to August, is extreme. But during the dry months there is a significant risk of fire.  In 1962 and 1980 fires, from cooking stoves, destroyed most of the village.  All documents were lost. Now, Kalewa has three fire trucks.

Japanese made fire trucks
Japanese made fire trucks

In addition to river travel, there is a road from Monywa that takes about ten hours to travel.

How does that engine handle the monsoon?
How does that engine handle the monsoon?

West of Kalewa about 20 km, or a two-hour truck ride, is Kalaymo, with a population 300,000.  On January 7, 2014, all of the elected officials from the Sagaing Division met in Kalaymo to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi from the National league for Democracy.

Kalewa elected official on left and my guide, Mr. Saw, on right
Kalewa elected official on left and my guide, Mr. Saw, on right

Myanmar or Burma, is a country with 135 tribes and 9 common ethnic groups, one being Burmese. Before independence from Great Britain was finalized, in 1948, Myanma was the written name and Bama the spoken.  Not all citizens from the Republic of the Union of Myanmar are Burmese.  So the name of Myanmar is more inclusive than Burma, but old habits are hard to break. Many people still call Myanmar, Burma.

General Aung San 1915-1947
General Aung San 1915-1947

In 1947, Aung San, a thirty-two-year old Burmese revolutionary nationalist and founder of the modern army, secured a commitment from the British to give his country, Burma, independence within one year. Aung San had belonged to the Communist party and supported the Japanese during WWII, until March 1945, when he changed his alliance to the Allies due to the Japanese treatment of his people. He was assassinated within six months of securing his country’s independence from Great Britain, leaving behind a two-year-old daughter Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ong san sue chee.)

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi attended Oxford, married Michael Arris, a Brit, and had two children. In 1988, a year of great upheaval in Burma, she returned home to attend to her sick mother. She spoke out against the dictatorship and was put under house arrest, on and off, until 2010.  In 1991 she received the Nobel Peace Prize as a human right’s activist.  Suu Kyi, who recently won political office, is actively pursuing the presidency. But there’s a law on the Myanmar books that says anyone running for president cannot be related to a foreigner, as she is—with a British husband, who died in 1999, and their two sons. The military is hesitant to endorse her, not wanting to upset the delicate relationship between their civilian-military government and democracy.  

Kalewa women
Kalewa women

When I travel, I foolishly ask about local politics. I was surprised to learn that although many of the men support Suu Kyi, they feel that at the age of 70, in 2015, she will be too old to be president. Perhaps because of the traditional role women play in Myanmar, I did not find any women who supported Suu Kyi.  Yet there is a resurgence of interest from democratic countries, who want to invest in Myanmar; and who support Suu Kyi. But I was told that rather than do business with super-powers, like the US, Europe, or Japan, the Burmese prefer to do business with their neighbors, the bourgeoning powers of India and China. In remote regions, like Kalewa, change is slow.

Looking north, up river, on Chindwin from Kalewa
Looking north, up river, on Chindwin from Kalewa

Suu Kyi is an inspiration to many, having single-mindedly dedicated her life to Burma, a country that has been under a brutal regime for many years. She is quoted as saying, “Fear is a habit—I am not afraid.” Having proven that, she has my vote.

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Monywa – Reclining Buddhas and Opium Smoking Nuns

January 2, 2014

Is she using Bic or Zippo to light her modified opium pipe?
Is she using Bic or Zippo to light her modified opium pipe?
I gave up my window seat on the early morning bus ride from Bagan to Monywa to a young bald nun in a pink robe.  She and her sister were assigned seats in different rows.  She looked terrified.  As a consequence of the trade, I shared a bench with a young man who spit betel juice the entire five hour jam-packed ride.  Lucky me!
No sun hats for these girls
No sun hat for these girls
I understand the fear shown by the young woman, given the January 2014 riot where a Buddhist mob killed dozens of Muslims in western Myanmar, close to where the bus was taking us.   Muslim and Buddhist conflicts have left 140,000 people homeless since 2012. There’s good reason to be cautious ‘in the wild west of Myanmar.’
One of two bus stops from Bagan to Monywa

I was en route to the Chindwin River, where my 350 mile plus boat trip would start the next morning in Monywa and end several days later in Homalin.  Everyone thought I was crazy traveling upstream with unpredictable boat conditions, no airline reservations to get back to the main tourist route, and limited time.   I was to meet my guide, Mr. Saw, later that evening in Monywa.  So I hired a motor cycle to visit the Buddhist caves in the afternoon.

Who needs a gas station?
Who needs a gas station?
It took one hour to get to the caves with reclining Buddhas and was well worth the bumpy trip.

Monywa7 cave reclining buddha

Un-excavated ruins bring out the “why” in me.  Why reclining?

Monywa1 cave temples

Why in caves?

Monywa5 deteriorating cave temples

Try to imagine this site in the 11th century. I don’t think much would change other than the erosion.

Monywa4 reclining buddha in cave

Are these dogs guarding the entrance? If not, then what are they?

Monywa8 cave monkeys

A troop of monkeys call these ruins home.

Monywa3 cave entrace to stupas

They’re deteriorating rapidly with the wet climate. What is being lost and should anything be done to save them?

Monywa11 Myanmar child at temple
These active religious sites are still visited by locals, daily. So what will restoration do to their culture?

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Bagan and Burmese Days – George Orwell

January 1, 2014

burmesedays

What an idyllic way to get to know a country. Reading Burmese Days not only allowed me a glimpse into the past but my Kindle didn’t work without internet or cloud reception. So I had nothing to read.

View from Shwe-San-daw Pagoda
View from Shwe-San-daw Pagoda

It’s hard to imagine what 13,000 temples, pagodas and  stupas would look like when only 2,000 remain today and they dominate the Bagan landscape. If you want a good view, go to the Shwe-San daw Pagoda. It’s probably best to go at sunrise when it is less crowded and the balloons (which start around 7:45) are floating over the plain. Also, the heat can be overwhelming in the afternoon.

Breakfast view from Thri Marlar Hotel roof top
Breakfast view from Thri Marlar Hotel roof top

There seems to be a perfect view from every spot – so expect to return home with more photos than you can ever share.

Bicycle paths take tourists beyond the main road.
Bicycle paths take tourists beyond the main road.

 Bicycling as far as the eye can reach is the way to see and get to know this site. But don’t underestimate what you’ve tackled. With a little over 40 square acres, make sure you carry plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat, and don’t leave home without a map. Bicycling at night with a flash light just isn’t practical, so beware of potholes in the road and schedule your trips to fit your bicycle skills.

Temple along main road.
Temple along main road.

Yes, there will be crowds, especially at the better preserved and more accessible temples along the road.

Caretakers basha with solar power adjacent to pagoda with less visitors.
Caretakers basha with solar power adjacent to pagoda with less visitors.

But explore off road pagodas, where you get to see what it must’ve been like in the 11th-13 century, when Bagan was in its prime and the temples towered over the bashas of the local villagers.

Twenty foot tall Buddha in Ananda Temple
Over 30 foot tall Kassapa Buddha in Ananda Temple

When I visited the site I couldn’t help but wonder who built these religious structures and why.  The thirty-foot tall, gold-leafed Buddhas are still imposing, even today.

Be sure to take off your shoes.
Be sure to take off your shoes.

What I loved about Myanmar is the mixture of tourists with locals, who go to the temples to pray.  Be sure to wear shoes you can slip on and off quickly.  You must go barefoot in all Myanmar temples.  After a full day of bicycle riding and padding barefoot on the cold temple floors, be ready for dirty feet and cracked heels.

Small stupa like in Behind the Forgotton Front.
Small stupa like in Behind the Forgotton Front.

Not all shrines are huge temples.  Small pagodas and stupas squeeze in between the large ones.  Throughout Myanmar, religious shrines dot the hillside.

bagan8

Old building and infrastructure crumbles.  The people who built them to ensure a better ‘after-life’ are gone.  So who’s left to fix them?

bagan restoring
Restoring interior of temple.

When you arrive in Bagan by air, they charge an archaeology fee.  Don’t lose the receipt if you want to climb the Shwe-San daw Pagoda.  And don’t begrudge the small payment needed to maintain the site.

bagan monk

It’s not as though these temples have regular parishioners to cover the cost. Even though you find monks everywhere and thus would expect them to actively provide the upkeep, like foreigners, most monks are tourists.  But they have the privilege of tolling the bells; for whom, why or at what time, I don’t know.

Irrawaddy River still serves brisk flow of travelers.
Irrawaddy River still serves brisk flow of travelers.

Whenever I visit an archaeological site, I wonder what it must’ve been like when it was flourishing.  Like many villages in Myanmar, Bagan had water access, and not just any river, but the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) River – the historical thoroughfare from northern to southern Burma.  A few villagers remain in the area, mostly selling the beautiful lacquer ware typical of the area or books, like Burmese days, to remind tourists what once was.

We met while bicycling. She sold me Burmese Days by Orwell.
We met while bicycling. She sold me Burmese Days by Orwell.

 
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Myanmar – A Country with a Ton of Gold, Precious Gems, Opium and Buddha

December 31, 2014

Shwedagon Pagoda - Yangon
Shwedagon Pagoda with stupa in background.

Even if you’ve visited a thousand pagodas, Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is worth the visit.  With a gold gilded roof 400 feet tall and a spire an additional 400 feet, the shock of seeing so much gold is overwhelming.  Gold is mined in northern Myanmar, where there is an age-old struggle between the government and the local tribes, and where the Chinese are changing the landscape, forever.

Shwedagon Pagoda
Pagodas for prayer

Pagodas? Stupas? What’s the difference?  Pagodas are tiered towers created as places of mediation.  Stupas, or mounded heaps, are sacred sites for holy relics and burial grounds. Shwedagon has both, pagodas for prayer and stupas as a final resting place for the ashes of Buddhist monks. With all the guerrilla warfare and rush for natural resources in Myanmar, I believe religion will be the key to lasting change.

Monks are everywhere
Monks are everywhere

In India, only Majulie had a strong Hindu monk presence.  In Myanmar, Buddhist monks are everywhere. 

yangon temple3
The people believe the more sacred sites they construct in their present life, the better their future life will be.

It is truly humbling to see how intently these people pray. They seem to find solace in it. When speaking with them, their philosophy is to: take only what is needed.  That’s honorable, but it seems to have thwarted their economic growth and suppressed their standard of living.

Old British Building
Old British Building

Like India, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) was a part of the British Empire.  Throughout Yangon there are relics of what once was.

Yangon - grandeur hidden at first glance.
Yangon – grandeur hidden at first glance.

Some have called Yangon an ugly city at first glance; albeit one with unlimited potential.

Restoration is starting slowly.
Restoration is starting slowly with changes in government.

Only recently has there been significant progress in reaching a peace accord between the government and the twenty six tribes who want to govern their land separately.  This political instability has resulted in Myanmar being one of the last unexploited frontiers to bid on. 

The transportation system in Myanmar is unpredicatable
The transportation system in Myanmar is unpredicatable

The most frustrating thing for me, as a tourist in Myanmar, was the undependable transportation system.  Airlines were either late, or completely canceled with only a moment’s notice.  Trains were so old, that you couldn’t blame them when they broke down.  And the river system is dependent on nature, getting stuck on a sandbar is the norm.  So leave a buffer in your travel time and travel with a lot of cash.  You may want to check out Go-Myanmar.com. They are have great insight on air and train travel. Recently, ATMs have arrived in Myanmar, but only in large cities. Also, the internet and cell phone service is costly and unreliable. Consequently, blatant, bootlegged communication services have sprung up.  So enjoy life without a cloud connection.

Satellites are a lucrative business
Satellites are a lucrative business

But the Burmese passively accept what I would consider inconveniences. They live in the present, with rich traditions from the past and after years of political struggle are wary of the future.  

Notice traditional cream from Thanaka bark on her cheeks: used over 2,000 years to cool and refresh the skin.
Notice traditional cream from Thanaka bark on her cheeks: used over 2,000 years to cool and refresh the skin.

They are a people that carry-on.  

Sidewalk lean-to kitchen in Yangon
Sidewalk lean-to kitchen in Yangon
They don’t complain. If they don’t have enough money to rent space for a kitchen, they just throw a lean-to on the sidewalk.

Typical sidewalk cafe.
Typical sidewalk cafe.

And the people come.

Beautiful display of "fast food."

Beautiful display of “fast food.”
So why visit Myanmar? It is a mystical land devoted to tradition, with an unexplored wilderness, bursting with natural resources.  It seems to be the simple life we all long for, until we get it.  

Seamstress
Seamstress

 

 
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Is that Calcutta or Kolkata: Post British Raj and Border Disputes

December 30, 2013 Did you know the largest segment of the population of Calcutta or Kolkata as it’s now called, is from Bangladesh and not India?  For that reason there continues to be border disputes in the once political, cultural, and intellectual capital of the India.

Victoria Memorial
Victoria Memorial

The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata is a fascinating contradiction; it’s more of a tribute to the struggle for Indian independence from the British than homage to the Raj.  It’s said the British gained control of India when the East India Company bribed lower level officers under the Mogul emperors to betray their own countrymen.  In India, there continues to be conflicts between the government and various factions, but they fit the struggles into their daily routines like they do their Sunday cricket games.

Cricket on Maidan
Cricket on Maidan

One day during my trip, a strike prevented everyone from driving on the street, unless they wanted their car stoned. Thankfully I didn’t have a plane to catch that day.

Kolkata traffic
Kolkata traffic

The British Empire reigned over Pakistan, parts of Afghanistan, India, parts of Tibet, Bhutan, Burma and as far east as Siam, now known as Thailand.  Along the borders you can see the blending of nationalities.

Cricket players in Kolkata
Cricket players in Kolkata

In 1947, Lord Mountbatten (the same one that’s in Behind the Forgotten Front) presided over the land partition of the British Indian Empire, formerly known as the Indian subcontinent.  Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru participated in the historic event. The assassination of Gandhi, a Hindu, was said to be a consequence of his openness to the Muslims. Nehru became India’s first prime minister.

Hindu temple drawings
Hindu temple drawings

On paper, the partition lines followed topographic boundaries: not political or religious. Families who had lived for centuries along the border were faced with the difficult decision of abandoning their land and moving to the side that worshiped under their faith. As mentioned earlier in my blog, there continues to be conflicts between Muslims and Hindus along the Pakistan border and between West Bengal India and the former East Bengal now Bangladesh.

Rajasthan milkman servicing Hindu and Muslims along Pakistan border
Rajasthan milkman servicing Hindu and Muslims along Pakistan border

Shortly after partition, the Chinese attacked the weaker northern borders in what became known as the Sino Indian War.   Lately, China has entered the arena with an eye on Bhutan.  So there are skirmishes between Chinese supported rebels on the Manas River along the Assam and Arunachal Pradesh borders, where the Chinese want to build a “Marco Polo” rail line between China and Afghanistan, not for tourism but mining. What kind of progress will that bring?

Strip Mining
Strip Mining Myanmar

For a country with a large percentage of the population living in poverty, cell phones are everywhere. Coverage is broken into a million different cells, which means a lack of coverage for us travelers moving from cell to cell. Satellites are seen nestled in many yards. Indians use cell phones like a radio, not so much for telephone correspondence but for music, updates on strikes and news.

Satellites in many yards
Satellites in many yards

India is a fascinating country to visit but for me it would be a difficult place to live. Securing change is monumental and it takes a lifetime of dedication.

Mother Teresa's casket
Mother Teresa’s casket

I was grateful to be at the Mother House for the Sunday service and to receive communion.
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India to Bhutan – A Stones Throw Away

December 29, 2013

Manas River separating India from Bhutan
Manas River separating India from Bhutan

The Manas River above, which is between India to Bhutan, is discussed as part of a December 30 blog on Border Disputes.

Jeep trail used by park rangers and Indian military
Manas Tiger Reserve Jeep trail used by park rangers and military

The region known as the “Chicken Neck” of India includes the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.  They form the frontier with Bhutan, one of the most remote, rugged regions in the world

Manas Tiger Reserve Ranger Station
Manas Tiger Reserve Ranger Station. Samson is a superb birding guide.

with fascinating agrarian practices.

Fishing nets used by all
Fishing nets used by all

Rivers from the Himalayans drain through India, providing a great quantity of fish,

netfishingindia

floodwaters for rice paddies,

rice paddies
rice paddies

and wildlife reserves that are patrolled not only by park rangers

ranger cook stoves
ranger cook stoves

but the Indian military.

Under basha, military has stored a canoe for monsoon season
Under basha, military has stored a canoe for monsoon season

Tall grasslands with deciduous and evergreen broad-leaf trees hide a biologically diverse community as well as political insurgents.

Find the elephant. Find the guerrilla.
Find the elephant. Find the guerrilla.

Bamboo forests provide habitat for wildlife.  Commercially bamboo is a food source (bamboo hearts), fiber for clothes, kindling, used in construction, and all paper in India is made of bamboo

bamboo grove
bamboo grove

When harvested, it must be softened to be woven, such as for baskets

bamboosoftening
softening bamboo

If not softened, it may be used as poles in the construction of bashas, thatched huts with plastered walls.

constructing basha
constructing basha

Basha is a term I frequently used in my novel, Behind the forgotten Front.

weaving bamboo for basha
weaving bamboo for basha

Other plants mentioned in my book include banana palms,

Banana palms
Banana palms

found in most yards

Banyan tree
Banyan tree

and Banyan trees, which are frequently planted along the roadside as shade trees.
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WWII Cemeteries: CBI Theater

December 28, 2013

digboimonumentroyalartillerygunner

 He gave the greatest gift of all: the gift of his unfinished life.

digboimonumentlancashire

Having grown up with a ritual of going to the family cemetery on Memorial Day, I’ve never thought of cemeteries in any way other than a spring outing.  So I was surprised when my emotions were high jacked at the Digboi and Jairampur WWII Cemeteries. 

Those of Christian faith face east; muslims-west.
Digboi Cemetery: Those of Christian faith face east; Muslims-west.

In God’s good time we shall meet again. Until then, in silence we remember.  Mam and Dad.

digboicemeteryeastlancheshire

This corner of a foreign field is forever England.

digboiyorkandlanchester

Some day we will understand.

digboimonumentegypt

Sleep on, Dear Son, and take thy rest.  The blow was hard, but God knows best.

digboimonumentscotland

In loving memory of my dear son, Ken.  You are constantly in the thoughts of Mam & family.

digboimonumentgloucheshire

Treasured memories of a loving Son.

digboisouthstaffordreg

We will always remember his smile. Mom and Dad.

digboimonumentstaffordshire

At the Jairampur Cemetery, where only Chinese are buried,

jairmpur cemetery

 tombstones were defaced and graves unearthed.  

chinese graves jairampur

That hurt, knowing the contributions the Chinese made towards the construction of the Stilwell Road and their unfortunate inexperienced valor on the front.

jairampurchinesetombstone

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Stilwell Road – Old Caravan Route to China

December 27, 2013

Stilwell Road Commerative Sign
Stilwell Road Commerative Sign

A man a mile – was the death count during WWII’s construction of the Stilwell Road; a near impossible engineering feat in itself but even more so during wartime. Malaria, typhus and monsoon-soaked, crumbling hills were the biggest killers – not the Japanese. 

India-Burma Border
India-Burma Border

Caravans, between China and Persia, had passed near the Pangsau Pass years earlier but, unlike the WWII army, had no need to carry army tanks or troops of men.  The Stilwell Road started in Ledo India.

Abandoned narrow gauge rail line - Assam India
Abandoned narrow gauge rail line

Transport to Ledo during WWII was via narrow gauge rail, which had been set up to service the tea plantations.

British tea house still in use
British tea house still in use

They called it the chicken neck of India; beyond the boondocks. You‘ve heard of Naga head hunters?” 

Pangsau Pass ahead
Pangsau Pass ahead

This was the territory of the Sing Pho and Naga tribes.  Descendents of both tribes still live within a couple miles of each other today.  During WWII the Sing Pho signed an easement with the U.S. government, giving the Allies the right to construct portions of the thousand mile road on their land.  

Cross section of old Stilwell Road - bitumen layer sprayed over chunks of granite
Cross section of old Stilwell Road – the scarce supply of bitumen was sprayed or poured over chunks of granite

In a manila folder containing important documents dating from the 1800s to 2013, the governing heir of the Sing Pho tribe , King Dowa Bisa Nong Sing Pho and his family, safeguard these records. 

King Dowa Bisa Nong of SingPho (far right). Kachin relatives who gave US easement to build Stilwell Road.
King of SingPho (far right). Kachin relatives who gave US easement to build the Road

Although the Sing Pho are Buddhists, many of the Naga are Christian. This remote region is one of the few areas in India that has a history of Christianity since before WWII.  It seems strange to think that at one time the Naga were both headhunters and Christians.  

Section of Stilwell Road in India
Section of old Stilwell Road in India 2013

There continues to be struggles along the border of India and Burma between the tribes and their respective government.  Due to unpredictable clashes, the road has seen deterioration and cross border permits are given only under special conditions.

Surveyor siting alignment of road
Surveyor siting alignment of road

This may be changing in the near future.  The governments of both India and China are interested in restoring the Stilwell Road in their respective countries and through Burma.  Problems with gold and precious gem mining, opium trade, teak harvesting, dams, tiger reserves, conservation efforts, funding, and property rights need to be resolved first.

Stream modification for future development
Stream diversion for development

Current investments in road projects along the Indian border and by the Chinese in Burma suggest a drastic change for the future of this area.

Old World War II barracks now in use by Indian army
Old World War II barracks now in use by Indian army

Within India, old WWII barracks, along the Stilwell Road, continue to be utilized by the Indian military as cantonments.

Ledo barracks - off limits to public
Ledo WWII basha barracks

Unfortunately they are not open to the public but at least they found a use for them and weren’t abandoned.

Coal mining along Stilwell Road
Open-pit Coal mine along Stilwell Road

This part of the Himalayas is so rugged that only part of the coal and oil deposits have been used. The Indian’s say when oil was discovered in Assam an Indian boy, in surprise and fear, showed the British the oil on his feet from walking through the field. The British response was, “Dig boy dig.”

Dig boy dig - first oil fields in India
Digboi – first oil fields in India

My book, Behind the Forgotten Front, takes a look at this part of the world from 1942-1945.
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India’s SSS – Scaffolding, Streets, Sewers

December 26 ,  2013

Infrastructure in India
The state of Infrastructure in India

The civil engineer in me cringed at the sight of flexible bamboo scaffolding (no OSHA in India) and

Bamboo scaffolding in Kolkata
Bamboo scaffolding in Kolkata

framing, supported by a brick here and there. (How can they ever get anything level?)

Framing in Agra
Framing in Agra

I’ve heard “Hasta manana” in Latin America. But in India, it’s “Hasta next year or when we get to it.” Construction projects are seen in progress everywhere, yet it appears to take years for completion.

Under construction with exposed rebar for 2 no 3 no 4... a few years
Exposed rebar under construction for 2 no 3…  a few years

Right next door to the start of something new and only half done was prime historical architecture, forgotten and falling apart.

Kolkata building in need of restoration
Building in need of restoration

Maybe it has something to do with phased funding or, as I was told, that 5% of the population pays for infrastructure from a populous of 2% being rich beyond description and 18% middle class. The remaining 80% are too poor to pay anyhing.   But everyone pitches in to keep the temples maintained; it’s a priority.

Graffiti in Udaipur hiding India's beauty
Graffiti in Udaipur hiding India’s beauty

There’s also the problem that some potential sources of revenue have had their taxes waived which could have been used to improve India’s infrastructure.  That income stream should be analyzed, even if it means some of the foreign outsourcing companies that use cheap Indian labor need to pitch-in.

No indoor water
No indoor water

My traffic engineering eye closed after seeing a road striped for a single lane in each direction with five vehicles headed one way and two the other for a total of seven lanes in a space sufficient for two.

transportation

I’ve driven a car in North, Central and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe but I would NEVER drive in India.

elephantsontheroad

They’ve got trucks, buses, cars, motor bikes, tuk tuks, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, elephants, camels, and people all on the same stretch.

camel with load

Along streets with rickshaws as the mode of transportation, storm drain pipes that would keep the road from flooding, that were six feet in diameter and probably cost millions of dollars, waited for the return of funding and construction workers.

rickshaw pulled by man2

Now, just because the open sewers can be hidden under the sidewalk, it doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Yangon sewer repair

Having spent much of my life on sanitary pump and pipe line designs and cursed with a weak bladder, I have an affinity for sewers.

Guess where it goes!
Guess where it goes!

They called western-style toilets; lady’s toilets.  Otherwise they were the squat and brace yourself style; which probably helps build up the quads and stretch out the ham strings.

guesthouse toilet

Good yoga training.
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Masks, Monks, Majuli

December 25, 2013

majuliemonkrawmask

Majuli monks are famous for masks and traditional dance.

majuliemonkeymask

Sixty five monasteries or Satras were built on the island of Majuli.  Monks dominate the island. Consequently, there is little commercial development and almost no public lodging.

majuliemonkfishmarket
Monk buying fish

There are several restaurants serving fish from the adjacent rivers to tourists willing to make the round trip journey in a day from Jorhat.

Motorcycles parked on roof of Majuli ferry. Note single rock bracing base of car tire for 90 minute river trip
Motorcycles park on roof of Majuli ferry. Single rock braces car tire.

Annually, the Brahmaputra River floods the island’s banks.

bashamajulieleaning

Crops are destroyed, foundations eroded and boat access eliminated.

majuliecarload
Planks to guide cars between eroding sandy bank and ferry boat

The Vaishnava branch of Hinduism, which is practiced on the island, demands total submission, leaving the monks childlike.

majulieoffering

 Satras provide bed and board for the monks, but adults are expected to earn their keep and contribute to the support of boy monks.

thrashingrice

Over twenty years ago Keshab Kakati’s parents sent him to the monastery at the age of five. He had thrashed his own rice the day before I arrived and stored it in jars to last the upcoming year.

Keshab Kakti's bed and journalist working table at monastery
Keshab Kakti’s bed and journalist working table at monastery

In addition to being a local guide, he hosts a radio program and is a journalist.  I offered him dinner at my guest house but he declined, saying he would have to fast the entire next day if he was to eat somewhere other than his Satra.

Keshab Kakati's kitchen in monastery
Keshab Kakati’s kitchen in monastery

Christmas morning I crossed the Brahmaputra River to Majuli.

majulieboatonboard

Finding a seat on the boat was challenging but the people were friendly, even if we could only speak with our hands.

majuliewomanonboat

At dusk, a planet, probably Mars, shining brighter than a street lamp, conjured thoughts of the “Star of Bethlehem” and home.

majuliexmas

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Charged by a Rhino

December 19-23, 2013

Charging Rhino at Kaziranga
Charging Rhino at Kaziranga

I didn’t expect to get charged by a rhino.  He just happened to unsuspectingly slip out from the elephant grass where our jeep was parked for bird watching. Surprised the shit out of everyone.

Rhino hiding in Elephant Grass
Rhino hiding in Elephant Grass

Do your homework when you decide to go on a safari,  The weather was dry and vegetation was green, but the grass was so high, it hid the animals.  In Behind the Forgotten Front,  Merrill’s Marauders and the Mars Task Force pushed through this grass; nervous that at the next bend they’d walk into the barrel of a Japanese gun.

Water buffalo crossing in elephant grass opening
Water buffalo crossing in elephant grass opening

Moral of the story: go when it’s most uncomfortable for you, it may be the best time for a safari.  I also learned to not depend on Google for weather predictions. The closest weather station may be a hundred miles away. Look at photos of the locals or those who traveled there the same time you plan to visit.

Mahouts at Manas who's elephants have red "third eye"
Mahouts at Manas who’s elephants have red “third eye”

Next, decide which class you want to travel.  I traveled 3rd  class, which did not have a lot of luxuries but I got to meet many locals.  If given the chance I’d take a tent over a bamboo thatched basha any day; tents are warmer.

naturehuntoverview

Don’t forget, the animals are wild and not accustomed to our paparazzi obsessions. We stopped for a New Zealand tourist to take a photo of a family of monkeys.  Before she could focus, the alpha male was pounding on the hood.

Assault by monkey on hood of car
Assault by monkey on hood of car

In Behind the Forgotten Front, I had domesticated and wild elephants.

Domesticated elephants
Domesticated elephants

The difference, you ask?  Domesticated elephants back’s don’t slope down and the wild Indian elephants are extremely shy.

Family of wild elephants
Family of wild elephants

The best way to find an animal is to track it by its dropping and their prints.  As you can imagine, elephants have rounded feet whereas rhinos have cloven hooves.

Rhino cloven hooves
Rhino cloven hooves

You’ll find the Rhino Dungplant only by old rhino droppings

Rhino Dungplant
Rhino Dungplant

Tigers are nocturnal.  I wasn’t lucky enough to see one, but going to their haunts, like a stream is your best bet of finding one.

Tiger Prints
Tiger Prints

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Masala Tea and the Spice Valley: aka Indus Valley

December 16-18, 2013

I never knew I loved Masala tea (Authentic Indian Chai tea recipe at end of this blog) until I arrived in Udaipur Rajasthan; the Indus Valley.

Indus Valley
Indus Valley

In my original writing of Behind the Forgotten Front I had the protagonist, Harry, look up into the canopy of the tea trees.  But tea grows in gardens and is trimmed to a height of two feet.  Harry would’ve had to be on his butt to see through a real tea tree canopy.

Tea Garden
Tea Garden

I loved the Muslim call to prayer at dawn and dusk in Rajasthan, along the Pakistan border. Throughout India there is evidence of Muslim architecture, notably the Taj Mahal, which was designed by a Persian architect.  Yet the Hindu Indians I met refused to admit the influence of the Muslim culture. The religious strife subtly influences their perspective on everything.

Udaipur Architecture

Along the western frontier, the Jain religion (or Jens), are similar but not the same as Hindus.  Jainism is non-violence based.  Later in my blog, you will see the Buddhist monks in Myanmar (Burma) have been having some violent conflicts.

Ranakpur Jain Temple

The Indus valley is still breathtaking today.  Of particular interest to me, as an engineer, was the series of artificial lakes constructed during the Mewar Dynasty using the run-off from the Himalayan Mountains. Then to make the hot, arid summers even more enjoyable, they built islands in the lakes; such as the Lake Palace in Lake Pichola.

Lake Pichola and White Lake Palace at dawn

The Kumbhalgarh Fort, a Mewar Fortress built in the 15th century in the Central Indus Valley with its 22 mile long perimeter wall, is said to be only second in length to the Great Wall of China.

exterior fort rajasthan
Kumbhalgarh Fort

With impregnable walls fifteen feet thick, it towers over the Indus Valley on a hilltop at 3600 feet,

rajasthan fort and indus valley 2

It fell only once to the Moghul ruler, Akabar, due to shortage of water at the fort.   The Fort was built on top of 300 Jain and 60 Hindu temples, some are still intact today.

temple within fort rajasthan

TEENA RAO’S MASAL CHAI TEA RECIPE

INGREDIENTS

  1. 10 cardamom (green) seeds – grind
  2. 10 black pepper corn – grind
  3. 1 cinnamon stick – grated
  4. 1 finger fresh ginger – grated
  5. 2 cups water
  6. 2 cups milk
  7. 1 tsp tea (1/2 Darjeeling and ½ Assam)
  8. 2 ½ tsp sugar

DIRECTIONS

  1. Boil water
  2. Add tea then boil between 5 50 10 minutes
  3. Add milk, sugar, pinch of Masala mixture (cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, ginger)
  4. Bring to rolling boil – boil 2 minutes

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Out of My Comfort Zone…by Choice

Keoladeo Park
Keoladeo Park
 December 15, 2013

After the long drive from the Deli airport to Bharatpur, I dragged myself off to the World Heritage bird sanctuary; KeoladeoPark, along a hideously noisy road. In India, horn honking is considered the polite thing to do: there are a lot of polite drivers trying to avoid accidents.

assambusaccident

 Along Keoladeo’s dirt paths wild peacocks lifted their cumbersome bodies into the lower branches of squat trees to avoid night, ground predators.  Hawks chased flocks of ducks from still waters.  Jackals barked evening calls.  And monkeys looked for trouble, as seems to be the case around the world.

rhesus monkey bharatpur

My biggest expenditure on my trip was tipping for service.  I generally will tip the going rate, but when a knowledgeable guide, like Harish Sharma, with three children at home charges only $1.50 per hour, I tipped 100%.  I didn’t care if someone said I over paid.

storksbharatpur

From Barataphur I visited Aga, home of the Taj Mahal and learned there are tours on nights with full moons but get your ticket a week in advance.  Otherwise, the mausoleum should be visited early in the morning; but not on Fridays when it’s closed, nor on Sunday, when Indian families make it their educational outing.

tajmahal

I visited it Sunday afternoon and could have sworn all of India was there.

Dorky photo with throngs of visitors at Taj
Dorky photo at Taj

Yet I admire the newly found middle class in India for offering their children a chance to compete with developed countries.

krishna vrindran
Krishna’s home: Vrindavan

While waiting for the train in Vrindavan, a homeless woman decided to push me out of my comfort zone.  I was the only white face on the platform and had a crowd of spectators staring at me.

1 train station vrindran

With the attention I was getting, she had no luck begging.  In anger she slapped my luggage.  Others tried to calm her down but I couldn’t help thinking I’d be angry too if I was her. It’s easy for me to step out of my comfort zone; I can always go home when the going gets tough.  I thought about the soldiers in my book and how they must have felt stepping off the train in India.  Unlike me, they were pushed out of their comfort zone without a choice.

Drying dung pies used by those unable to afford firewood
Drying dung pies used by those unable to afford firewood

One of my guides said, “India is not poor, it only has poor people.” These poor people can’t even afford firewood.  So with “cow dung patties” they make fires to cook on.
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High Tech to Higher Conscious


December 13-14, 2013

jain temple with some light

You will find happiness in accepting an apology that is never given.” At the time I read that quote in the New Delhi airport, I didn’t know I’d be moving from High Tech to Higher Conscious and surrounded by such reminders my entire stay in India.

Dupatia veil
Dupatia veil

On an average, 75% of the Indian population is Hindu and an additional 5% is Buddhist, Jen, and Sikh, which are considered offshoots of Hindu.  Muslims, many from Bangladesh and across adjacent borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, make up the remaining 20%.  Religious clashes in India are like race problems in the US, except you can’t tell a person’s religion from their dress.  

Saree
Saree

Men wear dhoti pants and women seem to float in beautiful saree and dupatia veils (note saree refers to dress that is wrapped whereas sari is one that is stitched to shape)

dhoti

Recently, in Uttar Pradesh, a young couple, she a Hindi of a middle caste and he a Muslim of a low caste fell in love.  The parents found them together and in a rage killed both.  The parents were given a jail sentence of 14 years. 

sari
sari

The Hindu religion is very complex and the deities are not only numerous but also humorous: an elephant with a gift for doling out wealth and a woman with multiple arms stabbing a demon child are a couple of their most revered deities.  But who am I to pass judgment on their gods?  I’m sure they would question why we honor a man who’s pictured with his face full of blood from a crown of thorns.  

           Shiva
Shiva

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