TRAVEL TALES

 

West Africa 2011:

I left West Africa on a Black Star Lines freighter in 1978, certain I'd be back soon. But it took nearly 34 years to get back to Ouagadougou.

 

China 2010: An annotated album

 

Soviet dis-Union, 1989 

Scenes from just before the revolution 
In 1989, I was a semi-accidental witness to history. Reflecting back on what was an amazing four-month sojourn in the Soviet Union, I decided to add an annotated photo album to stories I'd previously published on this site.

 

 

Don't Be Afraid 
In what was still known as Leningrad at the time, I found out that people weren't accustomed to feeling like they could say what was on their minds. 

 

Things falling apart 
The almost unbearable heaviness of being Soviet 


A White Night in Leningrad 
Pondering Russia's future in the midnight glow


Tbilisi 
Georgian hospitality and the love of Stalin 


Vanik 
Armenia's only shell game operator speaks of his life ambition

 

 

Burma, 1992-93:

A Day in Pagan - Burma, 1992

Thousands of pagodas rise from Burma's ancient capital. The people love to talk about their nation's past, but they are not so forthcoming about the present or the future. 

 

The Dance of the Nat Kadaw - Burma, January, 1993

On the far side of the Chindwin River, across from a river port called Monywa, an ugly woman dances for the demi-gods

 

Kyaitio - Burma, January, 1993 

Making a pilgrimage to the golden rock miraculously held in place (ostensibly) by a hair of the Buddha

 

Cuba 2000

I had to see it before it changed ... 

 

Etc. 

The Road to Riga 

Amidst smugglers and (perhaps) thieves between Holland and Latvia 

Incongruous Riga (Buffalo News, 1996)

On the Road in Albania, 1996

A rough ride

 

A room with a view? 

Immediately following a perfect beach day - Turkey, 1998 

 

End of the road 

A different sort of Florida - Cedar Key, 2001

 

Ancient (early 80s) history from my hometown:

Niagara's other wonder

Bright lights above the falls

The Dance of the Nat Kadaw

 

Burma, 1992

 

We knew about the nats from our visit to the shrine, perchedon a steep, black, rocky volcanic cone, which protrudes from the side of Mount Popa. Not only was Mount Popa home to a colony of pesky monkeys, but it was also considered the home of the nats - uniquely Burmese spirits said to be humans who, after suffering unnatural deaths, had ascended to a slightly higher form of life somewhere between man and god. 

 

Exactly how this vestigial adherence to spirit worship could be reconciled with Burma's Buddhist tradition was something no one seemed prepared to explain, but most Burmese appeared to be completely comfortable with the inherent contradictions. It was not at all uncommon, for example, to see a Burman en route to a pagoda stopping at a roadside shrine to make a token offering to a favorite nat.

 

The journey to Mount Popa and our first encounter with the nats was two weeks behind us when we arrived in Monywa. A busy port on the Chindwin River, eighty miles west of Mandalay, its biggest attraction was the nearby Thanboddhay Pagoda which, according to the guidebook, contained 582,357 Buddha images. We had made the obligatory stop, where an old Punjabi man had provided us with one of the more accessible explanations of Buddhist philosophy. "Life is like a bank account," he'd told us. "If you do good deeds in this life, then in the next one, you can draw on your deposits." Well pleased with our brief stop at the pagoda, we continued into town, checked into our hotel, and then headed for the riverfront.

 

In the middle of the street that ran the length of the embankment that served to protect the city from the Chindwin's seasonal floodwaters, workers were putting the finishing touches on a brightly decorated, rather strange looking structure that seemed to be some sort of temporary theater. When we inquired about this unusual construction, we were told that following the custom, a group of boys were going to be entering a monastery, and that the ceremony in celebration of these novitiates would go on between 7 and 10 the next morning at this site.

 

The following day, then, we dragged ourselves out of bed just after sunrise in order to watch this ceremony, but when we arrived at the riverfront, there was no sign of a ceremony. We sat down on the low wooden stools at an outdoor teashop to consider our options over coffee - which we had frequently found to be an adventure in itself. We had experimented with various ways of specifying "strong and black", but still, we never knew if we would be getting the Burmese style coffee, heavily sweetened with sugar and condensed milk, a weak cup of Nescafe, a steaming glass of anemic coffee- colored water, or, with some luck, strong black coffee. That morning, we were lucky, and sat enjoying a breakfast of coffee and the Burmese equivalent of doughnuts. In front of us, the street was busy with a constant parade of cars, trucks, buses, and livestock. This provided entertainment for a while. But what really intrigued us was the other side of the river. 

 

Getting there, it turned out, was simple enough. We simply paid our two kyat each (roughly two cents), joined a crowd of perhaps twenty-five or thirty other people (along with their bicycles, motorcycles, vegetables, and chickens) and jumped into a kind of motorized canoe for the crossing. These, I believe, are the kinds of boats you read about in those little articles at the bottom of page five - the ones in which Reuters reports "30 lost in ferry accident." But we arrived safely in the small village on the other bank, where the pigs, the horse carts, and the truck drivers all mingled in a relaxed atmosphere. As we moved along the main street, so many children tailed behind us that we began to suspect that perhaps we were the biggest attraction in Monywa. We wandered rather aimlessly up a side street that seemed to lead to the end of the village. Somewhere not too far away, we could hear the sound of amplified music.

 

As we headed for the open fields, a woman standing in a tiny open-air shop caught our attention and informed us in faltering English that the road we were following had no exit. We altered our course, and a few minutes later, we encountered a dark-eyed young woman carrying a small child. She seemed to be taking a special interest in us, and, though we couldn't be sure about it, she also seemed to be encouraging us, by means of rudimentary form of sign language and the nodding of her head, to follow her. We really had no idea where she was leading us, but as we followed, the sounds of the music grew louder, and a few moments later, we left the crowd of children behind and found ourselves in the courtyard of a private home. At one end of a covered patio, a traditional Burmese orchestra was set up. The members included a flute player, a singer, two percussionists, one man playing a set of tuned drums, and another man playing a set of tuned gongs. 

 

The music that came from this assemblage was the Burmese equivalent of jazz. The beat was steady and strong, the horn player and the singer carried the melody in unison, and the drummer and gong player wove intricate rhythmic patterns behind and around the melody. And then, after several repetitions of the verse, the performance first turned to frenzied improvisation, and then to chaos and cacophony.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

             

                  

                                   

 

     Listen to the music 

 

 

The orchestra was, however, not the featured attraction at this gathering. That was reserved for a rather elderly, and in all honesty, rather homely woman, who was dancing, with the encouragement of an entourage of similarly unattractive women. A large number of other people - presumably villagers - looked on. At times, the women of the entourage joined in the dancing, and at other times, the lead woman, who was dressed in a colorful and somewhat garish costume, would stop her dance altogether. Seemingly from nowhere, large quantities of money would then appear, which were passed either to the entourage of ugly women, or directly to the dancer. She would then resume her dance, with an expression halfway between possession and rapture on her face. 

 

After the music reached a feverish pitch, it stopped, the old woman quite suddenly and deliberately interrupted her rapture long enough to collect a sizable wad of money, which she stuffed into her clothing, and she began to make strange preparations with the help of an assistant - a young man whose effeminate features were accentuated by the judicious application of lipstick and eye makeup. On a table, they placed a small statue of man riding a horse, and then began the curious task of tying a dozen or so loops of string. Lastly, they set several bowls of food onto a tray.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the music began again, and the woman began placing these loops around the various appendages of the horseman and the horse - over his neck, around his waist, around his arms and legs, over the horse's head, and around the legs of the horse. Then she began offering the food from the various bowls to the statue - rice, meat, fruit, water, and even food and water for the horse. Most of what was not accepted by the man and the horse was dumped onto a plate that had been put there for that purpose, but the assistant always received a small, token offering after each item had been first offered to the statue. 

 

Finally, after this ritual had continued, to the accompaniment of the orchestra, for five or ten minutes, the woman picked up a sword that had also been placed among the items before her, and began to dance again, first slowly and deliberately in front of the statue, and then more frantically. She turned her eyes skyward, assumed a trancelike visage, and began spinning around in the small space which had been kept clear for her, waving the sword and swinging it dramatically. After another five or ten minutes, the music stopped, and more money appeared. This was in due course collected. In the mean time, we had been presented with bananas, a tray of specially prepared fruits and vegetables which we ate with some apprehension, since we couldn't be too certain of the sanitary conditions under which they had been cleaned and prepared, and the quite special Burmese salad made from pickled tea leaves, peanuts, roasted peas, sesame, and roasted slices of garlic.

 

And then, a few minutes later, with a new statue, the woman repeated the ritual of the symbolic feeding and clothing, followed by the dancing, with some minor variations. This time, the center of attention was not a horseman, but a four-armed warrior, and this time, the woman danced with two swords.The woman, it turns out, was a "nat-ka-daw". These are women who are considered to be married to the nats. It appears that many nat-ka-daws are women who are unable to find more conventional mates, but they turn this misfortune to good fortune, by establishing intimate bonds with the spirits. 

 

Most Burmese seemed to be completely comfortable with the inherent contradictions of the thriving paganistic nat-ka-daw cult existing alongside Burma's austere Theraveda Buddhism. As for the particular rite we observed, we discovered, to our surprise, that Norman Lewis, a British travel writer, had not only witnessed an almost identical performance forty years ago, but uncovered a booklet, published in Burma, which explained the cult. 

 

According to Lewis, the nat-ka-daws were able to make a comfortable living from fortune-telling. "The principal drawback to this arrangement [the marriage between nat and woman]," he wrote in Golden Earth, "appears to be that a girl who has married a nat cannot re-marry without his permission, which is rarely given. But a most fortunate aspect of the matter," he noted, "lies in the fact that the nats are said to prefer spiritual to physical charm, and that women whose lack of attractions has kept them single are often married off in this way." Furthermore, added Lewis, "the union is supposed to be far from platonic, and the nat's visits ... are said to be more frequent than those of a normal husband." 

 

Since, despite the Buddhist tradition, the Burmese cultivate the favor of the nats for good luck and good karma, these women occupy a rather important and even powerful position in Burmese society. In addition to their work as fortune tellers, they will, for a price, intervene to curry favor with their non- earthly partners, and this, apparently, was what we were witnessing.

 

The performance was repeated yet again, with another statue - another nat, we supposed. The woman who had accompanied us, still clutching a small child, appeared a bit restless. It occurred to us that the ceremony might continue for the entire day. We waited for a break, and then, joined by this woman - to whom we had still not actually spoken a word - slipped away.

 

Well - not quite. There was more hospitality, naturally. First a visit to her home, for tea, an introduction to her mother, and another offering of the pickled tea leaf salad. Then photos, and an exchange of addresses. And then we were on our way.

 

A few days later, back in Rangoon, we were attending a pagoda festival with a learned and quite religious man. It seemed an opportunity to learn a bit more about the nats, so we told him about what we had seen. 

 

"How do these nats fit into the Buddhist tradition?" I asked.

 

"Well actually," he told us directly, "The nats don't have anything to do with Buddhism." 

 

"But the people seem to make offerings to the nats," I probed further. 

 

"Yes," he replied. And then, oblivious to what struck us as a clear inconsistency, he added, as if he just might, if no one were looking, try it himself, "It brings good luck."

 

00:00 / 00:00

TRAVEL TALES

 

West Africa 2011:

I left West Africa on a Black Star Lines freighter in 1978, certain I'd be back soon. But it took nearly 34 years to get back to Ouagadougou.

 

China 2010: An annotated album

 

Soviet dis-Union, 1989 

Scenes from just before the revolution 
In 1989, I was a semi-accidental witness to history. Reflecting back on what was an amazing four-month sojourn in the Soviet Union, I decided to add an annotated photo album to stories I'd previously published on this site.

 

 

Don't Be Afraid 
In what was still known as Leningrad at the time, I found out that people weren't accustomed to feeling like they could say what was on their minds. 

 

Things falling apart 
The almost unbearable heaviness of being Soviet 


A White Night in Leningrad 
Pondering Russia's future in the midnight glow


Tbilisi 
Georgian hospitality and the love of Stalin 


Vanik 
Armenia's only shell game operator speaks of his life ambition

 

 

Burma, 1992-93:

A Day in Pagan - Burma, 1992

Thousands of pagodas rise from Burma's ancient capital. The people love to talk about their nation's past, but they are not so forthcoming about the present or the future. 

 

The Dance of the Nat Kadaw - Burma, January, 1993

On the far side of the Chindwin River, across from a river port called Monywa, an ugly woman dances for the demi-gods

 

Kyaitio - Burma, January, 1993 

Making a pilgrimage to the golden rock miraculously held in place (ostensibly) by a hair of the Buddha

 

Cuba 2000

I had to see it before it changed ... 

 

Etc. 

The Road to Riga 

Amidst smugglers and (perhaps) thieves between Holland and Latvia 

Incongruous Riga (Buffalo News, 1996)

On the Road in Albania, 1996

A rough ride

 

A room with a view? 

Immediately following a perfect beach day - Turkey, 1998 

 

End of the road 

A different sort of Florida - Cedar Key, 2001

 

Ancient (early 80s) history from my hometown:

Niagara's other wonder

Bright lights above the falls

 

 

 

 

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