“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.” (Hermann Hesse/Siddhartha)
Twenty-four hours a day, except for brief forays out into the intensity that is Varanasi, I have most of one wall open to the ebb and flow of life on the Ganges River of India. Yeah, that Ganges, of purification and rejuvenation and cremation. There are many ordinary small boats on the river, some carrying families who’ve come from all over India for the cremation rites of a loved one; or newlyweds holding hands, just the two of them and the boatman; others with visitors packed in—as in locals and Indians of the diaspora, and the quiet sort of travelers who are attracted to difficult places with deep significance. I saw a boatload of white-robed men—wonder who they were; and there is always a plethora of one/two/three sailors like me. It’s quiet, few motors, just the Ganges rowers in their shabby-bright little conveyances. Everything is old along this waterfront. The hotels, restaurants, boats, crematorium, me; I am extraordinarily comfortable here.
This is my last evening in Varanasi. My friend Natasha commented on how much she loved it here. I’ve been thinking about that today because these days next to the river may somehow come to be the most important of the trip. But I’m not sure why and I’m not sure I love Varanasi wholeheartedly. I’ll know soon…for now it’s only the Ganges I love without reservations.
This waterfront/riverside is still a place of grandeur but of a subdued variety. It’s the grandeur of a place as yet unglitzed and ungilded by the developers of today; of faded colors and muted sounds (both out of the ordinary in this country where every niche glares with red and gold and shiny and where the sounds of horns and shouts drown out talk and thought).
But it’s all about the river. That slow-flowing muddy brown water carrying the impurities of our bodies, cleansed in life and death by ritual bathing in the Ganges, on down to the Bay of Bengal. Around the crematorium the water appears literally and figuratively to be thick with ashes and one looks for other death debris. I always thought this must be a grisly place but it turns out not to be. In fact I am deeply moved by everything about this death/cremation process—a subject to which I’ll return.
Right now it’s 6:30pm, dark outside. There are only a couple of spotlights, and no flashing lights, neon signs, or big noises along here. There’s a stage down the waterfront a ways where Bollywoodish crooners can be heard in the evening. I was rowed down there my first evening and immediately left; faux-rituals and shiny and show-bizy, but it’s only in one spot and not so loud as to cheapen the whole area.
It’s warm and damp and dusty all at once all of the time but without the burn of the day’s sun it is most pleasant. My fan whirs gently, the crooner can be barely heard and voices drift up from on the walkway and the water. Bells tinkle and there’s the obligatory dog quarrel but that’s another story too.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.” (Norman Maclean)
Since the train journey from Yangon to Bagan turned out so well, why not try a road trip from Kathmandu to Varanasi, India? The original plan was a tourist bus from Kathmandu to the border and then a train on into Varanasi. For a variety of reasons that was not going to work and I was left with the choice of flying or driving. Flying is such an unsatisfactory way to connect places—like every place in the world is flyover country that isn’t in possession of an airport…when the most interesting experiences in life are down there on the road. Besides flying is too simple.
Road trip it was to be. And we know how I do love my road trips. This time I’d have a driver and a fresh eye for new territory that didn’t include my tried and true Great Plains. And best of all a fixer.
Note: I’ve mentioned before that the only degree I was ever encouraged to go for while still in high school was journalism; my science teacher thought that was the career for me (since he could tell early on it was not going to be in science). I believe that would have been an excellent career choice, not necessarily because I would have been a great writer—although who knows—but because a lifestyle of travel, photographing disasters, having fixers and drivers and insiders who connect you with what you need to know, where it’s happening and how to get there is so absolutely appealing. Once in awhile when I’ve been traveling I’ve come close. Kathmandu and my beloved Apsara Boutique Hotel was one such time. The manager was my ‘fixer’ arranging how this road trip would be implemented, the food and beverage manager my companion on the road, and along the way even a slightly shady character or two. My god…it was perfect.
The plan was this:
5am, November 15th, my pal Hari, my driver and I would leave Kathmandu, driving about 7, 8, 9, 10 hours, depending on road conditions to a border town, the name of which I forget as I’m writing this. Then my fixer’s contact would meet me, guide me through border control, introduce me to another driver for 6, 7, 8, 9 hours to Varanasi. What could go wrong…
PART ONE: 5am…right on time. We’re off. Hari has prepared a breakfast he thinks I will eat—in other words pathetically boring rolls and fruit. We are eager; he’s never been to this border town either. Only the driver, a skinny driving demon of few words has traversed this route through the mountains. And what a route it is…they’re rebuilding much of the road, all the way from the hotel in fact, so for the first seven hours it’s a ribbon of broken concrete and dust. All the smoothness and consistency of the Myanmar train. The frequent traffic backups could be compared to heading west from Santa Rosa on I40 when there’s been a snowflake or two OR (Teresa, you remember) that truck line-up in Kansas. But it’s all good. An adventure, and this time we can stop for the toilet—unlike that darn swaying, pee-flinging train—yup, now I would have access to The Public Roadside Toilet with which I’ve grown increasingly comfortable…just takes a day or two. I like my friend, Hari, so much. He has his own life issues as does his wife who’s a teacher; there’s a sister in the US which is still a beacon for a lot of the world’s left behind. Wish we were as good as they think. I leave Hari with gratitude and just the tiniest moment of trepidation.
PART TWO: Hmmm. Not so happy with the guy who’s the fixer’s border contact. Too smooth-faced and…untrustworthy-looking…have no idea what that means except he looks like a stockbroker.
Through passport control. No issue. Then my new driver/guide/companion for what will turn out to be the next nine hours. Oh good. Zero English. So it’s not his job to speak my language, I know that. But a word or two might have eased the way.
It all seemed more dramatic night before last than it really was now in the warm light of a Varanasi day, no big deal really but, trust me, it was for a short while back then. The roads in northern India are nothing to brag about, let’s just say. Stretches of normal, more stretches of that damn broken concrete and dirt. And the poor live along the road don’t they? Trying to eke out a living from selling trashy fast food bits and home-cooked basics to the truckers and poorer nearby townfolk.
Now and then my driver stops, asks “toilet?” or motions for me to come sit at the roadside table where he eats and I sip my bottled water flavored with Nescafe. This guy is not your local tourist guide; places we stop at are barren dirt-floored with big pots of the food of the day and a bunch of extremely scruffy-looking men about. Knowing the reputation of Indian men it’s good to be a little old lady. I know that’s a snide remark…but honestly…the stories out of the India-that’s-not-high-tech-and-getting-rich are not encouraging for females anywhere. But then neither are the stories out of Hollywood or Washington. Men, could you get it together…or at least keep it out of sight.
But I digress. Must be this first beer in many days. I’ll bet they have wine in Delhi… not in my Varanasi neighborhood though.
The day grows dark, late, uncomfortable, exhausting…shut up Marjorie, it’s just one of your damn road trips. Deal.
My tired manical (yeah, probably a necessary trait to deal with these roads) driver wants to deliver me somewhere, anywhere, safely as much as I want to be delivered. So we do eventually reach Varanasi about midnight.
I think we’ve reached one of Dante’s Circles of Hell…but then I looked them up and none apply; maybe Blade Runner scenes? It’s after midnight in the riverside heart of old Varanasi…not a Starbucks in sight. But plenty of men, cows, dogs, rats, shit, trash, alleyways. We eventually find my hotel (driver doesn’t want to ask anyone—sound familiar?), the already-sleeping night manager gets me a bowl of cereal because I look about to expire and I’m led to my oddest of odd rooms but OVERLOOKING THE GANGES. I wasn’t quite happy-happy yet but almost. Pure happiness would take a few hours of sleep.
Perhaps. No. More. Hard. Slogs. This. Time. But then I haven’t had my first Indian Rail ride. Adventures to come. So this post brings me to Varanasi. I’ll try to catch something of what this is to me in the coming days. India. India. India. INDIA.
November 17, 2017: Varanasi, India. Only a post or two to go before I’m cleared for the deep dive into INDIA (which should always be spelled with capital letters because it is always shouting at all of our senses). But before the Ganges, there was Everest.
November 14, 2017: Kathmandu, Nepal. Today was the long-anticipated flight around Everest. Airport at 5am. Off at 6:30 for the hour’s ride forth and back past the Himalayas. I experienced some odd moments gazing at those mountains, teary-eyed actually. The earth is so grand and glorious…and we’re so not that. Mucking about with our trash and digging/piercing/exploding tools. Contemplating the garbage that’s been left behind on Everest by the climbers is to reach a last exasperated straw in thinking we can ever change our attitudes about who owns geography.
Just a few photos. Couldn’t print out the one of me raising the American Neset flag at the top.
November 17, 2017: Varanasi, India. Internet spotty, I cannot spend much time on posting because … I am in India … undoubtedly the most sensual picturesque full place on earth. Between walks and river time on the Ganges though I am going to try to get up-to-date before the Taj Mahal. I have more time here by the Ganges than any other place left—for which I am most grateful. It’s an out of time experience. But now, to return to my more normal life in Kathmandu…
November 12, 2017: Apsara Boutique Hotel, Kathmandu, Nepal. 4:30pm. Out all day to the highest viewing place in the Valley. Roads made it an almost five-hour journey…but worth every bumpy moment. This is a modestly priced hotel with super-service support…and I love it here. I’m drinking wine, about to have spinach soup and fried mushrooms for dinner. Internet is great in this leafy cool (Kathmandu is chilly) restaurant. I used a completely public toilet for the first time this afternoon…you just have to do it right? I’ve been in that gas station restroom in Kansas…you know, that one you’d drive 50 miles out of your way to avoid…turns out this one is sort of clean and, while squatting is still one of the things I must work on in abs class, I can do this.
The people at the next table just said uff da. If I weren’t an introvert I would do some sort of American thing of ‘golly gee, hi, I’m a Norwegian (in my heart) and you must be some of my people.’ Okay. So that’s not me. Now I’m hearing them talk. Yup. Scandinavian. A little part of me wants to talk to them. What would I say? Hi, I’m practically a full-blooded Norwegian. But my president is a world-class monster—for which I apologize—so you can see why I’m just going to enjoy their close proximity.
I consider myself the ultimate road trip planner (that rating will drop considerably when my road trip from Kathmandu to Varanasi is taken into account but for this post let it be so) to have booked places in the order I did, from the hectic modernity of Vietnam to the calm of Luang Prabang to the mix of big city/resort-like places in Myanmar to the messy beauty and kindness and Difference of Kathmandu…and then will come INDIA.
Kathmandu is scruffy and dusty and welcoming all over. Thamel, the tourist/backpackers area, only a little less so than the real people’s city. I am staying at the hotel you always dreamed you would check into. While it is perfectly pleasant and comfortable it’s the service isn’t it? Most people staying here are trekkers which gives me elbow-rubbing, eavesdropping time with who you really should be when in Nepal; it’s nice to feel included but not to have to climb high mountains to do so. The hotel manager has decided I’m his pet guest (little old ladies are so damn appreciative of any attention we get) and has become my fixer (more about that in the road trip post), son, host, and best buddy embodied all in one (top that Scott and Steve…).
Went out of town to the highest mountain look-out by Kathmandu today. My driver is grandson Steven’s age and he’s funny and sweet and interesting just like Steven. We now call him my second grandson around the hotel. A nice interlude except for the roads. Kathmandu (and most of Nepal) probably has the worst roads left on the planet…but then I didn’t come here for the roads did I? Didn’t really roam around much in the neighborhood after returning because there’s mostly just mountain-gear and wool souvenir shopping and my home here at the Apsara is way too comfortable and accommodating—a dangerous combination if one is the least bit slothful.
Everest is coming up. Next post.
Some photos now—of Day One in Kathmandu via Varanasi internet. With any luck a post will actually go through in the next few hours. Should it bother us that the main source of our tech support needs is in a country with really really bad internet service? Nah…who cares…the Ganges flows just below my window.
Varanasi, India. November 16, 2017: My second night in India….and stories to tell already…especially the road here and then arriving and realizing you’ve just crossed into another dimension…bursting through the screen as Lion plays at the multiplex and into the theater that is India. Anything I say right now will not begin to…express…anything of this…there is just too much…. I’ll be back soon.
I am feeling beyond overwhelmed by this world, this incredible world. Also feeling way behind on posting so here’s where a photo album from Bagan, Myanmar comes in handy.
Bagan, Myanmar. November 10, 2017: Thae day exploring temples in Bagan was a peaceful interlude after the briefest of times in Yangon and then the famous train ride (wait until you hear about the famous road trip!). Would I do it again? Of course. However I will say that for me, especially now from the perspective of India, Bagan is a bit anti-climatic. It is perfect for serious history buffs of regional religion and culture I would think. Also, sadly perfect for a lot of well-to-do golfers on a tour that can combine the sporting urge with easy local history sites. I probably shouldn’t say sadly…but then I always think big tours are sad enough in themselves and when you throw in age and golf…well… It turns out the hotel I had booked into was part of a golfing resort; the actual golfers were staying at the ‘main lodge’ and we ‘others’ were down the road a piece. Still, they annoyed me, probably because they all were just as old as me and therefore I didn’t get that special attention of which I’m becoming very fond!
I am thinking about religions some as I travel; always with my general attitude of ‘a pox on all your houses’ but nevertheless a slight renewal of a slight interest in Buddhism. Perhaps because Buddha wasn’t a capital-letter god, and because he always looks approachable, in some of his likenesses as though he might even have a sense of humor.
Did I already say this: Bagan is an ancient city in central Myanmar (formerly Burma), southwest of Mandalay….it’s known for the Bagan Archaeological Area, where more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments tower over green plains.
Of course, it was not possible to get to many of the 2000 or so structures. I’d recommend motor bikes or bikes if that were to be a goal.
I did climb sometimes. The only hard ones were up and down in enclosed stairways where my claustrophobia kicked in … but I only looked straight in front of me and breathed … and then another … and then…
Sunset was the best. The highest temple, in the past available for climbing for sunset photo ops, has been closed but we got as high as we could. Those magical sunsets wherever in the world they take place.
November 13, 2017: Okay so another day. Can I just say I love Nepal. Kathmandu. Of course I do.
November 12, 2017: Sunday Night in Kathmandu…isn’t there a dirty ditty of some sort by that name? In any case this will be a quick and dirty diary ramble with few pretty pictures and practically no full sentences…maybe just adjectives? I traveled most of two days to get here to the Apsara Boutique Hotel, Kathmandu, Nepal. I literally fell into my new bed about 3pm, not sure I’d move again for 24 hours. But who’s got time for such nonsense when this strange city and valley beckon—although not right now; this evening it’s in bed with Surfy and a meal of yogurt and chapatti. Many photos to download and albums to make. And sleep to lay me down to…
I feel compelled to share a few quick observations about the delights and torments of the “sausage-making” part of travel…the stuff they never show in the glossy travel mags. You need to split your personality into three parts and multiply your energy level by three just to make it through. For example, the last day and a half has been primarily standing in lines—tickets, passport control, security, airport fees; climbing off and on planes and the buses from the gates, miles out to your lonely plane in far left-field; taxis to and from hotels; keeping the paper-shit together—passport, arrival form, departure form, customs form, ongoing plane ticket…you get the picture. Barely-adequate Administrator Me managed that, barely. Now I’m trying to write something worthy of being written. That would be Reporter Me but it’s a hard slog tonight because Adventurer Me hasn’t had any worthy in-country experiences during this time. It is after all this third Me that is the reason I’m spending Sunday night in Kathmandu. Shall I make something up? A murder on the odd little rooftop garden just out my window…I actually saw the brute raise the ice pick high just before I heard the scream ? The life story of my Sherpa, the one who will be climbing Everest with me on Tuesday—just a few more planks and I’ll be ready? And a woman on the street just handed me this little black-eyed baby girl and ran off and now I don’t know what to do…how will I smuggle her back to the States and give her to Steven and Michele so they can raise her with Luna and Kalia?
I’ll start posting brilliant photos of idiosyncratic temples and glorious mountain ranges soon…yes. no?
Back to Yesterday. November 11, 2017: Yangon International Airport
I think I’ll drink alcohol tonight. Two drinks. The first after I check in at 5pm and gain access to all airport things glittery and for sale. The second when I arrive for my Bangkok hotel overnighter. I am in the middle of a travel-24, but thankfully (but therefore less of a photo op) not on the Bagan-Yangon train. One wine was all I managed.
I started this leg in a surprisingly encouraging fashion—an edifying and enjoyable conversation with a State Department employee on the flight down to Yangon from Bagan. Suffice it to say I will feel better falling asleep tonight with the reminder that our federal government is mostly staffed by experienced intelligent career personnel who will do their jobs based on generally sensible long-range policies and directives that have been around for awhile, and that their interactions with their peers around the world will let us maintain some of the credibility we’ve projected when at our best. It was just so damn uplifting. I’ve been invited to his home during my short stay in Delhi and, for once, I’m excited about actually connecting with another American half a world away. Sorry to go on but well… ‘it was just so damn uplifting!’
Can’t check in for my Bangkok flight until 5…I’m thinking a nice Myanmar sauvignon blanc… In my travels with Lace I try to offer up useless, but colorful, old-folk sayings—one of my offerings in Vietnam was ‘making a silk purse from a sow’s ear.’ It is a useful phrase especially when traveling. I have these four hours to kill in a departure area with almost no food or drink and no internet. But me—making a silk purse—I’m enjoying the good cappuccino, getting a head start on the next blog post, and embracing the decision to skip that 21-hour train ride for an extra day in Kathmandu…which I find quite thrilling to be honest.
I’m happy. It’s not that I never feel ‘happy’ on my couch or at my desk…it’s just that I notice it when I’m away from the familiar. Solo travel is such a perfect introvert’s pastime, just that inner-me peering out of my shell with plenty to observe, and so few with whom to discuss it. Three weeks in and I’m happy…worth noting.
Midnight:01, November 12th: Suvarnabhumi Villa Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand. A friendly smiling passport control official checked me in at the Bangkok airport. When was the last time somebody joked with you in a security/passport line? Back in ’83 once…. And Bangkok has a special line for monks, the disabled, and people over 70!
That little exchange almost made up for the fact that by the time I got to hotel (nice one), organized my bags, showered, and had to go back to the airport for this morning’s flight to Kathmandu, I had had almost no sleep…so long story short…I’m here. It’s now 8pm and I’m going to sleep
AND IT’S NEPAL.
Kathmandu appears to be quite a dusty mess with all the streets torn up and full of the most maddening traffic I’ve seen so far…make’s Hanoi’s motor bikes seem like cute kiddie tricycles. But it does not appear dull! Exploring tomorrow out in the Valley and maybe a bit around town, probably to the Monkey Temple whatever that turns out to be…with monkeys I suppose.
AND I SAW A BIG PART OF HIMALAYAN RANGE FLYING IN. Don’t know if one of the mountains was Everest, but how powerful and grand even from such a distance the whole scene was. Tuesday, if everything works out I’ll be on a flight over to them. Please let it work out.
November 10, 2017: Sakura Inn, Bagan, Myanmar
Out and about among the temples and pagodas and monastery/libraries and ordination halls and mounds/caves of Old Bagan all morning. Now, after a rest in the heat of the day, about to go back out for a few hours which will include the sunset. What to call this travel day…I’m going for pampered-exploration. I’m traveling in a car between the sometimes far-flung structures with a perfectly-informed guide—by perfectly informed I mean not too much information (that’s what books are for) but critical bits shared with humor, and a sincere interest in telling Buddha’s story; some seeming pleasure in ordinary everyday exchange; and just the right amount of solicitousness considering he’s ferrying a little old lady around (not anything noticeable except to check in with me if I looked nervous about a particular series of stair—he did laughingly state that he supposed my sons might be angry if I broke too many bones on his watch—I assured him they would blame no one but their crazy mother).
At 7:00pm or so I’ll report back here to my efficient room and bring you up to date on my Myanmar story. Which does not begin as a tourist-wallowing-in-luxury tale…
7:15pm: I’ve eaten my ramen noodles, am having a Nescafe and looking forward to a closing yogurt. This is actually a giant evening meal for me which is probably why my stomach has been perfectly happy this whole trip…but India lies ahead…and I’ve heard the tales.
Myanmar is a nice story even before I post tomorrow’s very fat photography album from Bagan.
I reached my Yangon hotel, 15th Street Downtown, late afternoon on the 7th. Must admit to having just a moment’s trepidation—it is a budget hotel on the edge of China town/downtown, very working class and scruffy and busy; the immediate street scene seemed a little overwhelming…for about five minutes. I was soon in what has been my favorite room to date. Third floor of course and basic low-cost hotel décor but including ‘a few of my favorite things’: big wide open windows over a street with just the right amount of street noise (Vietnam’s billion beeping bikes defeated me when it came to an open window); there was a power outlet for every single one of my electronics at the same time; the street signs and numbers made sense so I could set out walking immediately for my biggest discovery—a real supermarket with yogurt in the neighborhood. Happiness is…all of the above.
Sound sleep to Yangon night-street sounds, up for a tasty little omelet and toast breakfast, and a three-hour walk to collect my train ticket for the Yangon-Bagan train. Not much time but at least I felt I had met downtown Yangon.
Now. How to tell you the story of the train ride? I was jotting a few things down as the afternoon, evening, night and next morning passed…whenever it was possible to write…so I think elaborating on the diary idea will suffice.
4:10pm: We’ve board the train. I wasn’t able to get a sleeper so I’m in what is called upper class—and indeed it looks just fine. Two seats on one side, one on the other, so much leg room Delta would have fit a whole nother seat in here. Seats feel comfortable. Best of all, there are no other tourists. Just me and the real people, I think. I definitely won’t have to listen to anyone chattering away in English—a travel nightmare is having a bunch of noisy people around you whose every trivial utterance you understand.
4:30pm: We’re underway. I actually write the word ‘bliss’ in my notebook.
5:40pm: Hey, it’s not exactly a smooth ride but we’re not really out of the city yet, it’ll settle down. The windows are all open and the fans are on, very noisy, but as you already know open windows and noise is for me practically a tranquilizer.
7 or 8pm or thereabouts: I’m in this pleasant state where my body feels melded with the train and my mind just free to roam about with a million floating thoughts of the most profound nature (did I mention I took a pill half an hour ago?). Wish there weren’t quite so many bugs hurled in the windows; they grip whatever they can, me and my fellow passengers mostly, and crawl into ears, nose, and mouth if left open…but there aren’t that many of them. I stay in this state of being for quite awhile.
1am: I am wide awake. I cannot do this. The noise and the bugs are bearable. Really. But the motion is impossible for small children, the old, and the infirm to survive. Damn those elderly monks up ahead and those cute kids over there, all slumbering so peacefully. Maybe they’re dead and I’m the only one left alive. Because this train is a wild horse—it gallops, bucks, trots, jerks to a halt, tries its damndest to throw me off. No maybe it’s a ship—there’s that chop when another boat passes and then there’s being thrown side to side in gale force waves and being on the verge of tipping all of the way over. It is impressive. I’m even more impressive…I manage to pee without splattering the whole toilet, quite proud of myself. I think it’s because of the skills I’ve learned in abs class, strengthen the core, the center of my body, which would naturally lend itself to peeing proficiency.
1-3am: I brace myself various ways in the seat, stick my legs against the seat ahead, a few other people are awake, a bat is forced into the car (maybe it’s a really fat black butterfly), a few other people are awake but most sleeping happily across their two seats.
3-5am: Whatever. I’m alive. Traveling. I sleep!
5am-12:30pm: It is a long morning. While the train cooled off at night, it’s bright sun and hot by 8am even with the fans. And by now the car is getting quite messy as people are getting food from vendors consisting of big plates of rice and veggies and a lot of things in wrappers. Sorry if it sounds judgmental to say a way of dealing with trash without throwing it on the floor or out the window might be something to consider. I would sacrifice something minor for a coffee but then I’d have to try peeing again and it’s just not worth it.
1pm: I’m at my hotel. It’s a surprise. It’s attached to a resort so somewhat more up-scale than where I usually stay, although still at the modest end of things. For once, I am just thrilled with the big shower, the coffeemaker, the AC, the quiet landscaped grounds…
A shower, a Myanmar wine and Shan noodles for lunch, a nap.
Temples ahead…but for now, please thank me for taking the train from Yangon to Bagan for you so you can check that off your to-do list.
November 9, 2017: Sakura Inn, Bagan, Myanmar
So it’s been a year and a day since we did the dirty deed, electing a narcissistic fool as president of the United States. I am happily tucked into what is, for me on the road, a luxury hotel room in Bagan, Myanmar. I mention this because it will eventually become part of today’s travel story, but also because there’s a giant flat screen TV sitting right in line with my bed-lounging eyes and CNN is accessible. I picked up the remote to turn it on…’Halt,’ I said to me, ‘you haven’t watched television news for One Long Year. Don’t do it now, the memories of that November night in 2016 will just come flooding back and surely turn your travel dreams to nightmares.’
The intention has been to write about this trip as it happens—which is proving difficult because of time to write, energy to keep it all together (otherwise known as travel-management) and of course doing the actual stuff for which I traveled to these particular places. Here’s to keeping on keeping on…
Back to November 6th. Luang Prabang, Laos. (Check out A Natural-Born Hermit on the Road, November 5th for Day One of Luang Prabang.)
As mentioned in a previous post LP included an initial day of general catch-up—getting use to the idea of traveling without my pal Lace and also fighting the once-every-trip-almost-flu bug. Day two was Laotian adventure day and, while not too wild and crazy, it was enough out of the everyday to make me happy to be out in the world.
The Laotian time can really be shared with few words and many photos. Of which there can never be too many of me on an elephant…
There’s an impressive bear rescue mission not too far from LP…and I have the t-shirt.
And a Buddha cave and bugs and snakes in Mekong whiskey and the odd landscape or two.
Luang Prabang is a perfect rest stop after the intensity of Vietnam. All lush greenery and kind people. And all those elephants and bears.
Actually at this very moment I’m not anywhere near the site of the above photo (Halong Bay, Vietnam). I am sitting in my room in the sweetest hotel on the trip so far. Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s been a perfect day in many respects: Elephant rides, a Buddha-residing cave, whiskey village (for 10 minutes—just long enough to take one sip of Lao Rice Wine), a forest-shaped/guided/rimmed waterfall, and in some ways, the best of all, a bear sanctuary. Just telling you now so you’ll look forward to a post to come—because right this minute we are leaving Vietnam with a trip to Halong Bay and the Thien Cung cave.
Unfortunately, today was mostly beautiful on the surface because it was impossible to shake the deep sorrow and shame I feel as an American over who and what we’ve become. Sure this love of violence and guns and gold and the virulent racism that’s all around and and and and has always been with us…but has it always been this deadly and this glorified? I felt small and dirty among the crowds of visitors from all over the world. Like I should apologize. Donald Trump is the president of my country…there are not enough ways to say ‘I’m sorry’ to make up for that…
But enough…back for one last look at that amazing brilliant luscious little country that beat our pants off a few years back and seems like it still is in all of the ways that matter.
VIETNAM. HALONG BAY. It is a breathtaking sight but for some reason the number of other visitors/tourists bothered me here. It’s high season in Southeast Asia and Vietnam is high on everyone’s list so it wasn’t a surprise exactly. I was spoiled by Greenlandic waters and bays last year I think…I wanted peace and quiet and just the lapping of waves (and maybe the creaking of an iceberg or two) as the only sounds!
VIETNAM. THIEN CUNG CAVE. Oh sure…I know it’s all about the lights…nevertheless. It. Is. Magic. Oh yeah, and I’m too tired to figure out if they are right side up or not. So just enjoy the colors please
GOODBYE VIETNAM. I LOVE YOU.
I left Vietnam a few days ago and don’t imagine I’ll have time in this life to return to a most magical of places. It filled my life through books and Ken Burns “The Vietnam War” for several weeks before the visit and will linger with me in memories and photos for a very long time. Now in Laos, tomorrow to Yangon, Myanmar. Time for a last photo album. Ho Chi Minh Museum.Halong Bay. Thien Cung Cave.
HO CHI MINH MUSEUM.
With the Burns documentary and returning memories, I have relived the reality of the loathsome behavior of every world leader connected with the Vietnam War—with one exception: Ho Chi Minh. He alone actually had an honorable mission, a singular mission which doesn’t appear to have involved personal aggrandizement or the accumulation of wealth. He wanted his country to gain independence—you know, like the US in our Revolutionary War! I’ve been very happy to honor him in any way I can on this visit. As an American, I have a lot for which to atone.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum site in Hanoi is worthy of the man who was largely responsible for the creation of that independent Vietnam. It’s a magnificent and quietly inspiring park setting and the Museum is a happy surprise. I suppose we expected something a bit old fashioned, a sort of dowdy tribute to a hero of the past. Instead it is bright and modern, packed with direct memories and historical tales and artifacts of Ho Chi Minh’s life, but also full of reflections and references to other international atrocities in the never ending battles for human dignity and freedom. A thoughtful niche is devoted to Guernica for example. Teresa was particularly impressed by the blend of contemporary with historical, expecting something more fussily pedantic and ponderously political. It is brilliant. A must visit whatever your age.
So I have a small personal story about a Ho Chi Minh. First I wasn’t going to include it because I thought it might be disrespectful, but actually it’s not. Back in the 50s, my mother, the devout anti-communist Republican farmer, had a gorgeous and dangerously feisty banty rooster whom she named Ho Chi Minh. Of course she was opposed to Ho Chi Minh, the human, because he had that communist label that struck terror into the hearts of all god-fearing Americans. But although she sort of loved Ho Chi Minh, the rooster, she had to acknowledge he was a real terror so what could possibly be a better name for him? For example, when neighbors stopped by for a daytime visit, they would honk the car horn without getting out of the car and call out “Vida, can you put Ho Chi Minh in the shed so we can come in?” Which she would do before putting on the coffee. He didn’t attack mom or dad, but my brother and I were never completely sure of his intentions, and he was a fierce enemy of ‘visitors’ in his territory, trying to physically (and mentally) force visitors to turn tail and run…and got somebody to do it every once in awhile. Mom obviously didn’t consider the name a compliment but now that I think of it…it was. Ho Chi Minh was a striking-looking man, gauntly handsome and stern. And though he apparently inspired people more from love than fear, he does not look like anyone who suffered fools gladly. So here’s mom’s Ho Chi Minh’s double before we get to the Museum and the real thing. And I do mean this story with all due respect…I am a fan of the human Ho Chi Minh though I never learned to love mom’s version.