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 plantation 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, safeguards 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’s relatives gave Stilwell the easement for the US to build the Road

Although the Sing Pho are Buddhists, many of the Naga are Christian. It seems strange to think that the Naga were once headhunters turned Christians.  

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

Struggles continue between the tribes and their respective governments along the border of India and Burma.  Due to unpredictable clashes, the Stilwell 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 mining gold and precious gems, trading opium, harvesting teak, maintaining dams, tiger reserves, conservation efforts, finding 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 are now in use by the 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 locals 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-to 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.


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


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


Majuli monks are famous for masks and traditional dance.


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.

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.


Crops are destroyed, foundations eroded and boat access eliminated.

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.


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


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 the 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 the monastery

Christmas morning I crossed the Brahmaputra River to Majuli.


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


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


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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 crap 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 elephant 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 maybe a hundred miles away. Look at photos of the locals or those who traveled there the same time you plan to visit. See what they’re wearing.

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 had few if any luxuries but I got to meet the locals.  And as a word of advice, if given the chance, I’d take a tent over a bamboo thatched basha any day; tents are warmer.


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



  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


  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, 2013After 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.


 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.


From Barataphur I visited Agra, 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.


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.  


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)


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. 


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.  


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India or Bust

December 11, 2013

Why am I writing One Step Ahead of Disaster? I traveled the route of my characters in my to-be-published book: Behind the Forgotten Front to provide the reader with visuals of unfamiliar terms and places. I’m not sure if I should characterize my trip as an escape from reality or trip to another world.

AA Flight from USA to London
AA Flight from USA to London

In American Airlines business class, I had a private movie screen, charging ports for computer, mp3 and phone, more alcohol than my body can tolerate and the luxury of stretching out for a comfortable night of sleep. I slipped into that comfort zone too quickly and found my five hour layover in London expand into twenty four hours.

Travel luggage: 21 inch carry-on, day pack and purse

For luggage, I used a 21 inch carry on that could be converted into a backpack, duffle bag, or roller.  My day pack carried all my electronic gear, such as chargers and cords and plenty of water.  The purse carried ID and money but like any seasoned traveler I had copies of everything in both my other pieces of luggage in case something was lost or stolen. I also found travel slippers (or flip-flops) great for when  you couldn’t use your shoes inside – I’ve been in too many gyms and did not want to get athletes foot.
Gel, wipes and toilet paper
Gel, wipes and toilet paper

The worst thing that could happen would be to get sick.  So I took a peptobismol tablet each morning to coat my stomach and carried both immodium and cipro but didn’t need either.  Having gel when I needed soap, wipes for washing my face or after getting muddy and there was no water around, and a roll of trusty TP kept me a happy camper.  You may want to check out Jodi Ettenberg’s site, Legal Nomads. She has a lot of good travel tips for out of the way places. I was ready for everything, except Heathrow.

 Heathrow’s World Club lounge makes up for their terrible food by offering every type of liquor imaginable. After a shower at the club’s facilities and with the help of a few glasses of wine I was soon in the swing of things.

World Club Lounge
World Club Lounge

While I relaxed and let my high tech gear do its cloud communicating I observed the travelers. A man in a smart business suit facilitated a Skype broadcast,  A salesman using Power Point presented a packaging company software program.  The movers-and-shakers of the world are truly on the run. Do they even need to be “in touch” with anyone anymore?

When I checked my British Airways stub for boarding time to India, I saw they had posted “gate closing” time. So I dashed out of the lounge, ran the length of the concourse, caught a train to the gate and as I arrived watched the plane taxi out to the runway. Was this a nightmare? No, it was real. But as I found out shortly, the plane was taxing away because there were mechanical malfunctions. In the first of more to come “steps” ahead of disaster, I was shipped out to a local hotel for the night.

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