Quin's Progress


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Sunrise, Sunset

CheruquinIt’s holiday time, and once again, people everywhere are talking about miracles. So, gather ‘round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale of a truly rare wonder. An occurrence of such extraordinary unlikeliness and infrequency that seeing a giant octopus piloting Halley’s Comet like a chariot across the Golden Gate Bridge would seem banal by comparison.

It's a sleep mask.  Don't be afraid.

My favorite sleep mask.

I’m talking about me getting out of bed before dawn to see the sunrise. Not to compare this to the big, faith-based marvels that inspire our various winter festivities, but anyone who knows me, has worked with me, or tried to get me on the phone, much less up and dressed, before double-digit hours in the morning, will confirm that, for me to voluntarily haul my carcass upright and into motion while it’s still dark out, when the building isn’t even on fire…well, it’s gonna take nothing short of a forklift miracle.

But, such miracles do occur now and then. Usually as a result of peer pressure. And, to be honest, I always feel like I’ve been tricked; defrauded out of my early morning snuggle time by the promise of beholding tangerine magic that never quite delivers. But, I keep falling for it.

Rajendra and Bhawani.

Rajendra and Bhawani.

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The terrace behind the Taj Mahal.

It all started years ago in India, when my friends Rajendra and Bhawani told me it would be simply inexcusable to miss seeing the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. I was pretty sure the Taj Mahal would look amazing at any time of day, so I politely declined. They were so persistent, though, that I started to worry that I might actually miss something astonishing if I didn’t make the effort. Accordingly, I dragged myself out of bed in the wee hours, grumbled resentfully through the dark streets of Agra, and followed Rajendra and Bhawani to the foggy marble terrace behind the Taj Mahal, where Rajendra said the view of the sun bursting over the horizon would be most awe inspiring. And we waited.

DSC00372There’s a river winding through the sands behind the Taj Mahal, and as dawn approached, daylight started to illuminate the land, and nearby villagers came out to the bank of the river…and squatted down. From above on the terrace, I had to squint to get a good look at them. It was getting lighter and lighter out, but we still hadn’t seen the sun come up. But, the lighter it got, the more villagers came to the river and copped a squat, and the clearer it became what they were doing.

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Oh, hayell no.

I turned to Rajendra and said, “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?”  My friend Jennifer tried to lighten the mood, knowing well how much of a morning person I’m not. “No, I think they are taking pictures of the Taj Mahal! They are getting down low to frame the shot!” Bless her. She’s such an optimist.  I looked at Rajendra, the arch of my eyebrows demanding an answer. “Please tell me you didn’t drag me out of bed in the middle of the night just to come watch people poop on the river bank!” Rajendra laughed nervously, and said the people were, indeed, relieving themselves. I turned away in exasperation, and in the opposite direction, saw…the sun! It had come up on the other side!

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On the other side.

“LOOK!” I shrieked and pointed, and Jennifer and Rajendra and Bhawani and I ran around to the front of the main tomb building, just in time to see the fat, amber yolk of the sun climb into the Indian sky over the tip of the red marble monuments on the, yes, east side of the complex.

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Looks exactly the same at 3 p.m.

“Why were we back there watching people go to the bathroom in the river when the sunrise is over here!” I whined. Rajendra looked positively nonplussed. “I don’t understand, it usually comes up over there, I don’t know what happened this time,” he said. Well, that could happen to anybody. You know how unpredictable the sun can be.

Sunset in Koh Samui, Thailand.  And no one had to get up early to see it.

Sunset in Koh Samui, Thailand. And no one had to get up at an unchristian hour to see it.

After that, I swore I wasn’t getting up to see any more damned sunrises. Sunsets are just as good—no, better, because no one has to get up earlier than they want to, and they virtually demand to be accompanied by a relaxing cocktail. That’s definitely more my speed.

Fast forward to last year. I was on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea. For some reason that made perfect sense to me at the time, I booked a hotel on the east coast, on the opposite side of the island from the main town. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel also happened to be next to a large, volcanic tuff cone named Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called “Sunrise Peak.” You can see where this is headed.

Seongsan Ilchulbong.

Seongsan Ilchulbong.

It was off-season, and when I arrived, it looked like I might be the only guest in the place. So, when the English-speaking gentleman the owner had dispatched to meet me upon check-in (that’s Korean hospitality for you) told me that they had set up a special sunrise viewing terrace just for me on the side of the building facing Seongsan Ilchulbong, and would be waiting for me at 5:15 a.m. with coffee and pastries and blankets for snuggling…well…it would have been rude to say no.

So, up I got. At least, this time, I didn’t have to go very far, and I didn’t have to watch anyone at their morning toilet. And there was coffee and pastry. That made it much more bearable. But, the sunrise still failed to deliver the advertised spiritual epiphany-inducing chills. In fact, as if sensing my bad attitude, it failed to show at all.

This is what it looked like just before dawn:

Before dawn.

Before dawn.

And this is what it looked like just after:

Just after dawn.

Just after dawn.

Pfft.  I shoulda stood in bed.  I renewed my vow that the only sunrise I would ever see would be one on the end of a long and festive night of carousing, not one I had to crawl out of bed for.

Anton.  Just look at that smile!

Anton.  And bakso.  Both wonderful!

Then came Anton. Anton is a professional driver (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004371273617&sk=about), and when he doesn’t have a client booked, he kills time doing airport runs from the Yogyakarta airport in Java. That’s how we met. We hit it off like a house fire, so I hired him to drive me around and show me the sights.

It's a tofu brand.

It’s a tofu brand.  No comment.

Lucky for me, he also knows all the good local places to eat, and introduced me to a bunch of Indonesian dishes I might never have discovered otherwise, like “bakso,” a wonderful meatball soup with noodles.  And a popular local tofu brand, called “Poo.”  No river bank required.

Borobudur.

Borobudur.

One of the most notable sights near Jogja is a massive, 9th century Buddhist temple called Borobudur. When I told Anton I wanted to go see it, he said we needed to set out at 4 a.m. to get there by sunrise. Oh no, I told him, nothing doing. I don’t care about the sunrise. We can just go around noon. He said okay, but knitted his eyebrows and looked down into his bakso. After a couple bites, he said, “Quin, if you want to go later, we can, but it will be very hot and very crowded. I don’t think you will like it.”

Borobudur.

Borobudur.

If there’s anything I hate more than getting up early, it’s oppressive heat and crushing crowds. He had my attention. I proposed we go at, like, 8 a.m., and avoid the heat.  Now, we were negotiating. He argued that we would still have to set out at 6:30 to get there by 8, and it would still be hot, and with all that discomfort, we wouldn’t even be rewarded with the sight of the sunrise. So, why not go a couple hours earlier, see the magical sunrise over the temple, with the Merapi volcano in the distance, and then get in and out of the temple before the bus tour groups show up and the heat gets too bad. He knew a secret, special place up on a hill over the temple where we could watch the sunrise, and it wouldn’t be crowded, and we wouldn’t have to pay the entrance fee the hotel near the temple charges to let people watch the sunset on their terrace. I reluctantly agreed.

That’s right.  Anton talked me not only into getting up, but into climbing a mountain before dawn!   He really is a wizard.  And this was my reward (if the video below does not show, click here):

Bee coming in for a landing on Buddha's head.

Bee coming in for a landing on Buddha’s head.

I have to admit, it was pretty cool. And we got in to Borobudur in time to see the giant bumblebees perching on the Buddha’s head–Buddhabees–before the stone got too hot in the sun for them to land. Point: Anton.

A week later, I asked Anton if he would take me to Mount Bromo, the big, active volcano in east Java.  It was a couple days’ drive away, but he was willing.  On the second day, Anton started preparing me for the idea that I would have to get up and trek up the mountain before dawn.

Buddhabee.

Buddhabee.

“Why,” I asked. “It’s a volcano, it’s open all day. We can go in the afternoon.

No, we can only drive up so far in my car, and then you have to take a jeep, and the jeep drivers only work in the morning.”

I bet we can find one who would be willing to go later,” I said confidently.

High tech security system on the wall at the lodge.

Cool high tech security system on the wall at the lodge at Mt. Bromo.

When we got up to the lodge at the edge of the ash plane surrounding the cone, Anton checked with his contact, who confirmed that it had to be a pre-dawn run. I was so annoyed. Anton assured me that, once again, the heat would be so ghastly in the afternoon, that the trade off of getting up early would be worth it.

Anton, freezing to death in the jeep.

Anton, freezing to death in the jeep.

Now, Mount Bromo is up at almost 8,000 feet, and it was really cold that night. It was the only time I broke out my packable down jacket in the entire year I have been on the road, so I was especially skeptical about this heat avoidance claim. But, there was nothing to be done. Anton–who ordinarily stays in bed while his clients meet the jeep driver for the trek up the mountain—after advocating so hard to make me go early, had to get up and go with me.  We froze our assets off in the dark in the back of the jeep, as it lumbered off-road across the moonscape to the side of the volcano, and began to climb. About two-thirds of the way up, the path was so jammed with jeeps and motorbikes, that we had to stop and hike the rest of the way on foot. This did not improve my mood.

Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun. From the opposite direction. Again.

Anton walked along a few paces ahead of me through the crowd, cheerfully offering falsehoods of encouragement, like “just a few more meters and we are there, Quin!” when we were clearly nowhere close.  Finally, at the top, there was a big, curved amphitheater carved into the hillside, from which you can look down onto the active, smoking cones of the volcano. And that is a truly remarkable view.  But, once again, the sun came up on the opposite side! Tricked again.  You would have to climb over the back side of the viewing platform and look out across the plains in the other direction to see the stupid sunrise. So, all that effort, and the sun came up in the wrong place.

P1110962Within a half hour after the sunrise, 99% of the people and the jeeps they came in were all gone. So, if we had waited, we could have driven right up to the top and hopped out of the jeep right at the amphitheater steps. P1110971And it wasn’t that hot. And I refuse to believe there isn’t a jeep driver willing to make a few extra bucks after the sunrise run is over. But, it sure was a marvelous, otherworldly sight. I’m just fairly sure it would be equally marvelous at noon. Or, even 9 a.m. Whatever. I’m not bitter.

P1080167In the meantime, I am back to my commitment to a “sunset only” policy for 2015. Sunsets are just more glamorous. And I’m more likely to be glamorous at the hour that they occur. I think we can all agree that’s an important factor.IMGP1939  So, for me to get up voluntarily just for another sunrise, well…it would take a miracle.


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High Tea with Bruce Lee

SoloEverybody has different levels of tolerance for solitude. Me, I’ve always had well-developed solitude management skills. I would do just fine on house arrest.  It actually sounds kinda relaxing to me.  Even when I was a little kid, when my mom would send me to my room for the early 70s version of a time out, she would come look in on me a while later and find me giggling and having a grand time, all by myself, no toys in sight. Sequestration wasn’t punishment to me at all. Rather, it was a welcome break, and an opportunity to check in to the vivid, interior amusement park of my head. It drove my poor mom bonkers.

Plus, when I'm alone, I can do things like this.

Plus, when I’m alone, I can do things like this.

I’ve never had any trouble going to movies or restaurants alone, and I rather prefer to go to museums alone. Well…at least, objectively alone. I often have very agreeable company right there in my mind. Don’t worry, I don’ t mean the kind they give you antipsychotic medication for. Let me back up.

BLSomething most people don’t know about me is that I’m secretly fascinated with Bruce Lee. If anyone ever asked me that old chestnut of an interview question about who I’d most like to have dinner with, “Bruce Lee!” would fly out of my mouth before they even finished the question. Not because of his movies (although those are pretty cool), or the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death (although that is intriguing), or the supposed curse that felled his son (sad, but that movie was dreadful), but because everything I’ve ever read that he wrote, or that is attributed to him, strikes me as the kind of profound that is so simple, it should be common, but unfortunately isn’t. Bruce-LeeHe had an understanding of human nature that was chillingly deep. If you read his philosophical writings, and remove them from the context of fighting, they apply in almost any situation. Dude was wise. Plus, he was not only a peerless philosopher and fighter, but also a wicked dancer—he was the 1958 Hong Kong Cha Cha Champion. I bet he could properly caramelize onions, too. Alas, we’ll never know.

Pie with BruceAnyway, some time ago, I started having imaginary hangouts with Bruce Lee, in my head, whenever I found myself alone and bored. In these sessions, Bruce is never defending attacks from villains or breaking boards with his forehead. KittiesNo, mostly, we bake pies, crochet sweaters for my cats, or put seasonal decorations around the house together, while I tell him about my current thoughts, problems or conflicts, as he listens quietly and nods, and, at appropriate intervals, says thought-provoking things like “if you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done,” or “a goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at”—pearls of wisdom that he actually did say, and that I find exceedingly helpful and insightful. I love my play dates with Bruce. I always feel better and more sorted out after we’ve spent time together. And, since I don’t actually talk to him out loud, no one is the wiser, and I haven’t been packed off for involuntary analysis over it. Yet. So, if you ever see me alone on the ferry or at a restaurant, or even in the car, and I seem a bit lost in thought, don’t mind me, chances are good that I’m hanging out with Bruce Lee in my head, and we’re canning peaches or something.

poo singlesThis quirk comes in tremendously handy for a solo traveler like me, as I seldom feel awkward sitting in a restaurant, going on an excursion, or just hanging out alone. However, it does nothing to comfort the multitudes of people who feel awkward around others who perambulate about all by themselves. When I said, above, that everyone has different levels of tolerance for solitude, I didn’t mean tolerance of just their own isolation.  I also meant their tolerance of other people who are alone. As I wander, I am finding that the global comfort level with parties of one is generally low. People just don’t like to see someone alone.

Lady Hermit Crab makes everyone uncomfortable.

Lady Hermit Crab makes everyone uncomfortable.

There’s a host of reasons for this. Some are cultural. In Asia, as in other places where family is of paramount importance, people tend to see a person alone—particularly a woman—as someone who must have no family, no friends, no…minions. Their default thought is not that you are independent, or brave, and enjoying your freedom, voluntarily on your own. They might think that after talking to you, but at first blush, it just seems sad to them. They project onto you how they think they would feel if they were adrift alone, and feel sorry for you. It makes them uncomfortable.

ThemostinterestingsolodinerSometimes, it is economic. Restaurants are much happier to see couples or groups than a solo diner who is going to occupy a whole table and only order one person’s worth of food. Entertainment venues aren’t thrilled to have that vestigial seat empty next to you that they can’t sell unless another lone weirdo comes along. These are, of course, generalizations, but you get the idea. Put these factors together, and you have a recipe for resistance.

Esplanade.jpb

Singapore.

I’ve had restaurants refuse to seat me because I was alone, and others where they dispatched kitchen workers to sit with me so I wouldn’t be. Many tours, transportation shuttles, and cultural classes or events won’t allow a singleton to book, even if there are other parties already going. And don’t get me started on the dreaded “single supplement.” I ran into this problem so often, in so many contexts—from restaurants to snorkel excursions to candy-making classes to the cushy seats at the fancy VIP movie theaters in Bangkok—that by the time I got to Singapore, my patience on this issue was fraying just a tad. And then this happened.

FlyerThere’s a massive Ferris wheel in Singapore called the Singapore Flyer. It was the biggest Ferris wheel in the world until earlier this year, when a bigger one opened in Las Vegas. It’s very cool; it has big, enclosed glass cabins that comfortably fit about eight or so people each, and moves almost imperceptibly in a 30-minute revolution that gives you breathtaking, eagle-eye vistas over the whole city, from the Marina Bay Supergrove to the Esplanade to Serangoon Road to the National Stadium.

Dining CarThey do this groovy thing, too, where they turn some of the cabins into lovely VIP dining cars, with linen tablecloths and candles and butlers, and take guests on a couple rotations while they serve a four-course repast. They do it for dinner, but also for high tea, which is one of my favorite things.

Dining Car2I went to the ticket office and tried to buy a ticket for the high tea service, but the cashier said there was a two-person minimum. I asked if other parties had already reserved, if the dining cars were shared, and if the table was communal. Yes, yes, and yes. So, I pointed out that their two-person minimum had been met, and that I would just join the group. The following exchange ensued:

In the clouds“Ma’am, it’s the policy. They only take parties of two.”

“Would they take a party of three?”

“Yes.”

“Then they don’t just take parties of two.”

“It has to be at least two.”

“But, you said there are other people already booked. Is it a private party?”

“No.”

“Then, there will be more than two, and I should be able to go.”

“I can’t do that, each group has it’s own bill, and the minimum for each bill is for two people.”

“Ah, I see. Well, what if I just pay the minimum?”

“No, because they would prepare food for two people.”

“Lady, do I seriously look like someone who can’t put away two people’s worth of cucumber sandwiches and petit fours to you?”

The Flyer and Marina Bay hotel and casino, by night.

The Flyer and Marina Bay hotel and casino, by night.

She glared at me, said to wait while she got the manager, and snapped the box office window shut.

Flyer CarAs I waited, I hatched a plan that, if the manager wouldn’t budge, I’d just buy two tickets and, when I showed up for it later, gesture to invisible Bruce Lee at my side, and say to the person at the entrance “yes, we are both here, can’t you see?” Just let them try to deny me admittance. But then, I pictured some guys in white coats waiting for me at the exit with butterfly nets, and thought better of it.

On Top

View from the top of the Flyer.

So, when no one had come back after almost a half hour, I surrendered and skulked away in defeat. Not that I couldn’t wait out the standoff, it’s just that, after a while, I’d had a chance to think about what they might do to my food if I persisted over their objections. I waited tables all through college, you see, and although I never sabotaged anyone’s victuals myself, I was witness to a few hidden kitchen vengeances that I’ve never forgotten. Don’t piss off people who serve you food or cut your hair, gentle friends. It’s just not worth the risk.

RafflesStill, the idea of high tea in Singapore had germinated, and I was determined to get my pinky in the air if it killed me. It just wasn’t going to happen above the skyline. Lucky for me, one of the best places for high tea in the world is right there in Singapore, in the Tiffin Room at the historic Raffles Hotel.

Raffles.jpbWhen I called for the reservation, and was asked how many of us there would be, I almost panicked and made a reservation for “Lee, Party of Two,” but I caught myself in time, and before committing, asked if there was a minimum party size. Thankfully, there wasn’t. At last!

IMG_7954On the appointed day, I arrived in the closest thing to Sunday Best that I carry with me when I travel, and was shown to a dainty little table in the corner, the surface of which was obscured almost entirely by a thick volume of the latest Vogue magazine. I asked the hostess if the table was already occupied, indicating to the magazine. No, she said, the magazine was for me. Because, I was alone. They wanted me to have something to distract me from the stares of pity, I guess. Still, it was pretty thoughtful, considering how most people feel about dining alone.

Tea with BruceNevertheless, I picked up the magazine and handed it back to her, thanking her for her thoughtfulness, and saying that I needed the space for scones and tarts and crustless curried chicken salad sandwich triangles. She didn’t need to know the truth: who needs Vogue when you’ve got Bruce Lee?


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Update: Miss Nancy Has a Home!

Good news, gentle friends! Nancy Tran, the kitty I rescued in Vietnam, has found a happy home.

Scrawny little Nancy, getting strong at VAWO

Scrawny little Nancy, getting strong at VAWO.

The good folks at Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization (VAWO) in Hoi An took her in, as reported in my last post. In their loving care, Miss Nancy flourished and got bigger and stronger, and became fast friends with another rescued puss-puss cutie named Bunny Boy. The kitties were such good friends, in fact, that VAWO was reluctant to let them be separated for adoption. Luckily, they didn’t have to, as some wonderful expat lady took them both!

Nancy Tran (left) looking big and healthy, with her pal Bunny Boy (right) and her new mommy.

Nancy Tran (right) looking big and healthy, with her pal Bunny Boy (left) and their new mommy.

Look at my big girl. She has turned into a puma! I am so relieved and glad that this story has come to a happy end. Thank you VAWO–Emma, Cat and Phong–Dr. Quang, and to Miss Nancy and Bunny Boy’s adoptive mommy, from the bottom of my heart, for caring for this little creature who captured my heart!  Thanks, also, to Trang at Hanoi Animal Rescue, and Matt of Da Nang, and everyone else who reached out to me in response to my post regarding Miss Nancy’s plight.  Your willingness to help me help this sweet creature is so appreciated!  Special thanks, too, to Virginia and everyone else who responded to my call to support VAWO in their tireless work to save abandoned and helpless animals.  You are all angels.


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Me & Miss Tran

P1130487Since I’ve been traveling in Southeast Asia, that soft spot in my heart that is reserved for animals has taken more than a few pointy-toed boot kicks. I’ve told you about some of them; others I’ve kept to myself because I don’t want to bum you out too much. I’ll tell you about this one, though, because it has a happy ending. Or, at least, it will, by the time I’m done.

P1160798Hoi An is an enchanting little town in central Vietnam, at the bottom of the China Beach crescent, about 45 minutes from Da Nang. Pastoral and quiet, flanked by cinematic marble mountains and rice paddies, Hoi An is an ideal place to hit the pause button and regroup for a while after a long stint on the road.

P1160869I was having a most entertaining morning wandering through the town market the other day. I’d been accosted by two old grannies (who turned out to be about my age) who announced “you come, mama take care of baby,” and proceeded to denude me of all unwanted body hair on every decently exposable part of my body, right there on the sidewalk, with twisted loops of thread. spring roll wrappersI’d gotten a lesson on how to make the wrappers for fresh spring rolls from scratch, as well as those addictive, flavored rice crackers that look like hunks of Styrofoam. IMG_0248I’d had a foot massage, and was about to have another cà phê sữa đá, that dangerously delicious Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened milk. It was shaping up to be a pleasant day.

P1160884As I passed the central market square, I noticed a tiny, black figure skitter across the entrance to the food stall area. When I looked closer, I realized it was a kitten. Barely even there, it would have fit in a teacup with room to spare. I gasped when I saw its ribs showing through vacuum-packed skin, its thin fur sticky and dirty, face crusty. A woman selling sugar cane juice nearby saw my shock, and put her hand over her heart and shook her head, saying “he no have mother.” I stood there for a minute, unsure what to do. Deciding there was nothing I could do, I walked away.

fishermenBut, I couldn’t get that scrawny bag of bones out of my head. I took a boat up the river to see the fishing villages that afternoon, but, the whole time, I was thinking about that sad little creature scrounging around the market, looking for food. At dinner, I just picked at my meal, feeling guilty. P1170007That night, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, the image of that pathetic, little thing appearing every time I closed my eyes, reminding me that the vilest thing about me is, and will always be, my ability to observe suffering, and walk on by.

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The market, at night.

Finally, I just said to myself, “To Hell with it! I may not be able to save all the helpless creatures I see, but I can try to do something for this one.” So, I got up, got dressed, and walked across town to the market in the middle of the night, and hunted for him. I managed to find several rats in the process, much larger than the kitten, but I figured they could take care of themselves. They seemed pretty healthy, actually.

IMG_0397

This is where I found the kitty.

There was an older couple still working in the market hall, and I asked them if they had seen a “meow meow,” and indicated “small” with my hands. Oh yes, they knew exactly what I meant, and before long, we had located the little guy, and the gentleman crawled under a booth and grabbed him for me. The lady emptied out a box, and we nestled the kitten in there with my beach sarong, that I had brought along to wrap him in. I heard them laughing as I left. They must have thought I was nuts. They could be right.

formulaI know better than to feed a kitten cow’s milk (unless you want to spend the rest of the day cleaning up explosive diarrhea), but it’s not like there is a Petco in Hoi An, or anywhere I could buy kitten formula and a kitten baby bottle. So, I bought some cooked chicken and fish from a street vendor on the way home. Better than nothing.

I smuggled him into my hotel room, and first things first, gave him a good, thorough bath, which I’m sure traumatized the poor thing. It wasn’t optional, though, considering where I had found him, and the state of his fur and face. Oh, that poor little sticky, goopy thing! He must have thought he was done for.

IMG_0245

Poor baby!

Once I got him clean and wrapped up in a towel to keep from catching a chill in the air conditioning, I offered him some bits of food. He lit into that food with such voracity, he bit the end of my finger with his needlelike teeth several times. I’m sure it was the first food he’d had in a long time. I was worried about shocking his system with too much food too soon, so I only gave him a little bit at a time. But, appetite, he had in spades, so, I knew he was strong. With his belly full, he fell asleep in my hands, purring ever so softly. I was toast. What the heck was I going to do with this baby kitten? I was supposed to fly on to my next destination, Hanoi, in just a few days! But, I had a little time to figure it out, so, I invoked the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara and determined to just think about it tomorrow.

Lookin' a little rough there.

Isn’t that just the saddest creature ever?

The next day, I marshaled my expert information gathering skills to find an animal rescue organization to take my little ward. I enlisted the help of the very tolerant hotel staff, and made calls to every animal welfare organization I could find from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, and everywhere in between. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s find stuff out.

A tad squinky eyed.

A tad squinky eyed.

Through an animal group in Da Nang, I got the number of a veterinarian, Dr. Quang, who, believe it or not, made a house call to the hotel. He told me the kitten was actually a girl, and that she was dehydrated and had an abscess on the umbilical vestige spot on her tummy. Without asking my permission, he flipped her upside down in my lap, and performed a surgical procedure to clean the infection out, right there on the patio. The poor lamb bit the shit out of my hand in the process—who could blame her?—and I bled all over my pants and the floor and the kitten. It was quite a dramatic scene. The house call and surgery bill came to a whopping $7.

IMG_0253

Either I have giant fingers, or that is one tiny kitty.

Dr. Quang gave the kitty a shot of some antibiotics, fluids and vitamins, and gave me the number of a guy he knew, Phong, who takes in and cares for abandoned animals. I called, and Phong agreed to come for the kitten the next day. Dr. Quang admonished me not to feed the kitten fish or chicken anymore, but to give her rice porridge made with beef stock. Umm, okay doc, sure thing, I’ll just whip up a batch in the coffee maker right here in my hotel room. That wasn’t feasible, obviously. As a compromise, I swiped some paté from the breakfast buffet, and made a kind of mash with some hot water. This went over big with the kitten; she complained loudly if I offered her anything else after that.

"Whyyyyy?  Whyyyyy?  Whyyyy?"

“Whyyyyy? Whyyyyy? Whyyyy?”

She complained a lot, that little thing. With good reason, for sure, she’d had a pretty weird couple of days. When she would cry, it sounded like she was saying “Whyyyyyy? Whyyyyy? Whyyyy?” It reminded me of Nancy Kerrigan after Tonya Harding’s husband whacked her in the knee right before the Olympics. So, I named her Nancy.  It suits her, I think. But, she’s Vietnamese, so her last name is Tran.  Nancy Tran. Miss Tran, if you please.

Nancy thinks Mrs. Meers is creepy.

Nancy thinks Mrs. Meers is creepy.

Nancy Tran likes to watch TV. She is particularly fond of K-Pop videos. But, she’ll watch whatever. Here we are watching Thoroughly Modern Millie, which I contend is one of the most brilliantly deranged and hilarious movies of all time. I could be projecting, but I think Miss Nancy liked it, too. If you haven’t seen it yet, please remedy that immediately. Preferably, with a purring kitten on your chest, if possible. But I digress.

IMG_0271

Snuggly Snookums.

The next day, I got a response to my email to a local animal sanctuary (run by a couple of foreign women, at least one of whom is American), saying they were, unfortunately, already beyond capacity, and couldn’t take Miss Tran in. They are just a volunteer group, with no funding or sponsorship, and they weren’t in a position to accept any more critters. I understood, but it was disturbing, as it began look more and more like Phong was going to stand me up and leave me with this kitten to take care of.

I found a listing online for rescue organization in Hanoi that focuses on adoptions, and read several reviews in English—presumably from expats—saying what a great network it is. So, I rang them up and asked, if I could get Nancy to them, would they take her and find her a good home. Yes, they would, she said.

Looking perkier after only one day of love.

Looking a lot perkier after only one day of love.

But, Hanoi is about a 14-hour drive from Hoi An, and neither the airlines nor the railroad would allow me to take Miss Nancy Tran on board on such short notice, and without health certificates that I couldn’t get until she is healthier and vaccinated. I was going to just hire a driver and make the trip by car, but the director of the Hanoi rescue hotline told me not to do that, that she would make some calls and try and find me some help closer to where I was. Bless her, she did, and guess who came through? Dr. Quang and Phong! The people I had already been in contact with! There just aren’t that many people rescuing animals in Vietnam, much less, central Vietnam.

IMG_0341

Phong, our savior.

The following afternoon, Nancy was already looking and feeling so much better when Phong came for her. What a sweet, sweet man. Dr. Quang had filled him in already, so he knew all about our Miss Tran. As we chatted, I realized he was with the Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization, the rescue shelter I’d already been in touch with that said they were too full to take another animal.

Breaking my heart!

Breaking my heart!

This worried me, but Phong assured me she would be okay. I promised to make a donation over the shelter’s website to help them take care of her and the others, which I did (http://www.gofundme.com/vnanimalwelfare). Nancy Tran and I both cried inconsolably when Phong took her away. I was a wreck for the rest of the day, and beyond. I’ve gotten email updates from them, though, telling me she is doing well and getting stronger every day.

IMG_0443

More coffee.

When I got to Hanoi, I had coffee with Trang, the woman from Hanoi Animal Rescue who had helped me over the phone. She told me about the foster and adoption network they have developed to save dogs and cats from the meat trade in Vietnam. They have miraculously been able to find good homes for almost all of the animals they have rescued, if they are healthy. They interview prospective adoptive homes, and do follow up checks to make sure the animal is doing well. Unfortunately, they are also a completely volunteer-run group, with no funding or sponsorship, and despite their successful adoption program, mounting vet bills are on the verge of shutting them down. Apparently, the only officially organized and supported animal welfare group in Vietnam that deals with dogs and cats, as opposed to wild animals, is Animal Rescue & Care (A.R.C.) down south in Ho Chi Minh City.

bdngpassIn the meantime, though, Trang has been invaluable help, pitching in with me to figure out a way to get Miss Nancy up here to Hanoi, so she can be adopted. Trang even called a cattery that ships fancy cats all over, and they said Miss Nancy is too small to be shipped alone; she’s going to have to travel escorted, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, anyway. Time is of the essence, though, as the smaller and cuter Nancy is, the more likely she’ll be adopted by someone who doesn’t want to cook her for dinner. (Trang told me that, in northern Vietnam, some people apparently believe the meat of a black cat is very good for the health.

Doesn't our Miss Tran look so much better already?

Doesn’t our Miss Tran look so much better already?

There’s no meat on Miss Nancy right now, but by the time she is healthy and strong enough to make the trip up here, there will be, so it is of paramount importance that she land in the right home. I remember my folks had this problem when we had to get rid of our pet goat, Willy, when I was little. There were lots of people calling, wanting him for a barbecue.)

But, we’ll figure it out. There’s a way, I just have to find it and throw some money at it. One thing’s for sure: I won’t rest until my Miss Nancy Tran is settled into a loving home of her own.

Stay tuned….

* * * * * * *

For more information about the animal rescue groups discussed in this post, see:

1.  Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization (Central Vietnam—Hoi An): http://www.vnanimalwelfare.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Vietnam-Animal-Welfare-Organization/163375270485035.  To make a donation: http://www.gofundme.com/vnanimalwelfare

2.  Hanoi Animal Rescue (Northern Vietnam—Ha Noi): http://venha.org/en/ or https://www.facebook.com/tramcuuhochomeohanoi.   To make a donation via PayPal, click “send” on the homepage, and enter hanoipetrescue@gmail.com as the recipient.

3.  Animal Rescue and Care (A.R.C.), Ho Chi Minh City (Southern Vietnam—Saigon): http://www.arcpets.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/pages/ARC-Vietnam-Animal-Rescue-Care/156253704415502.

4.  Cứu Trợ Động Vật Đà Nẵng — Animal Rescue of Danang (Central Vietnam—Da Nang):  https://www.facebook.com/CuuTroDongVatDaNang?fref=ts (site in Vietnamese only).


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Beauty Night In Mandalay

P1140812There’s an old saying in Asia that the most beautiful women have Indian eyes, a Thai smile, and Burmese skin.   I wouldn’t dream of disputing that, but it’s not as easy as you’d think to verify the last component of that combination. Why? For the same reason that the adage is true. Thanaka. Burmese women cover their faces with it.

P1140469When it comes to unique norms of beauty coming out of Myanmar, most of us who grew up with National Geographic automatically think of the Padaung or Kayan women of the Karenni ethnic group, who wear brass coils around their necks, making them look long and stretched. But the Long Neck Ladies of the Kayan are an oddity even within Myanmar. A far more widespread cosmetic custom—and just as much a cultural identifier to all the people of Myanmar as the brass neck rings are to the women of the Kayan—is the use of thanaka.

IMG_8751Thanaka (pronounced “tah-nah-KAH”) is a cosmetic made of the ground bark of the thanaka tree that grows in the drier areas of Myanmar. Combined with a few drops of water, the ground thanaka bark makes a thin, creamy paste of a color my mother would have ever so daintily referred to as “baby shit yellow,” but that I’ll call more of a Dijon mustard color. Thinly applied to the skin while wet, the thanaka dries to a soft, powdery, buttercup yellow.

P1140400The people of Myanmar have used Thanaka for centuries. You can see ancient thanaka grinding stones in museums, so it’s been a part of their cultural identity for a long, long time. Today, all over Myanmar, even in the big city, people use thanaka as a daily cosmetic, sunscreen, fragrance, and overall skin protection/improvement treatment. It’s supposed to perform all manner of complexion magic, from preventing acne, lightening sun damage, shrinking pores, even killing fungal infections on the skin. But, mostly, folks just think it’s pretty to paint it on their faces. Or their arms. Or hands, especially if the person works outside. But mostly faces.

Usually swiped lightly across the cheeks and forehead, or boldly painted into decorative patterns, thanaka is used by everyone.  It’s an equal opportunity beautifier. You don’t see it on grown men too often, but pretty much everyone else uses it every day.  Women:

Girls:

Boys:

Babies:

 

Thanaka Logs

Thanaka Logs

In the local markets, you can buy a chunk of a thanaka branch, and use the special round stone and some water to grind your own thanaka paste, like so (if video doesn’t show below, click here):

IMG_8946If that looks like too much of an upper arm workout for every day, you can buy a cake of pre-ground bark paste, and just rub that on a wet surface—even your palm—to create the thin lotion to put on your skin.

P1140901Alternatively, it comes as a prepared concentrate, in jars, sometimes mixed with other cosmetic additives or fragrances.  Everyone I talked to said to avoid the ones with added stuff and just get the plain, organic one. Don’t mess with a classic.

IMG_8815Everywhere I went, women were trying to smear me with thanaka. I had a thanaka massage—which was lovely and refreshing—and before she let me up, the massage therapist thanaka’d my face, to go. I visited a rural village, and the matriarch dragged me to the thanaka stone and fixed my face (that’s her in the video above). I just looked unfinished to them without it.

IMG_8842It smells nice, kind of soft and fresh, faintly woodsy, and herbal. But the most awesome thing is that it gently tingles and cools your skin, which is so welcome in the Myanmar heat. It also keeps your skin dry, when it would otherwise be glistening with schwitz.

IMG_8745I got some expert advice from some girls who work in a department store in Mandalay. They busted me, in what I thought was an empty aisle of the store, singing and doing the cha-cha to the Asianized instrumental version of Copacabana that was on the piped music system, and once we were all done laughing at what a dork I am, they started patting my cheeks and saying “you need thanaka!” So, I enlisted their help in choosing a prepared product to try at home, because I wasn’t investing in a stone to grind my own anytime soon.

IMG_8746I knew to get the plain, organic kind, but still, you have to be careful which brand you choose. Some factory-made thanaka products are banned all over Southeast Asia because of dangerous impurities that have caused nasty cases of lead poisoning. Apparently, some kids in Missouri died of lead poisoning after using tainted thanaka paste (it was news to me that there was a Burmese community in Missouri, but apparently, there is). So, beware, and make sure you get the pure, organic kind. P1140898The girls at the store told me this one—“Shwe Pyi Nann”—is good. Several other women later told me, yes, this one is their trusted brand, too. I think you can even get it on Amazon now. I just never would have known to look for it before, or what to do with it if I had discovered it by accident.

IMG_8749My department store girlfriends told me to dig out a small glob of the paste and mix it with a little water until the consistency is right—like paint—and then go to town. So, I went native and had myself a little thanaka party. I think I need some practice.  Okay, so maybe this was a lesson in how NOT to wear thanaka!

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt.  What?  KISS wore lots of makeup.

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt. What? KISS wore lots of makeup.

Although I don’t think I’ll be sporting thanaka-face in public outside of Myanmar, I didn’t toss that jar of thanaka when I left. It makes for a nice weekly facemask that really does shrink your pores, and leaves your skin feeling so clean and fresh. In fact, I’m using it now, as I write! So, thanaka you very much for the wonderful beauty tip, Myanmar! My pores and I are ever grateful.


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Freebird

She saw me coming a mile away.

She saw me coming a mile away.

In the streets of Yangon, and at temple gates in various cities in Myanmar, there are girls with baskets full of finches. Perky little finches, cheeping cheerfully and hopping about. For 500 Kyat (about 50 cents USD), the girl will reach into the basket, bring out one of the wiggling birds, and place it in your cupped hands. Then, you make a wish and set the little birdie free.

finchesBuddhists believe that such small acts of kindness give them extra merit points in their karma banks, to be totaled up with all their other good deeds and weighed against all their bad deeds when it comes time to be reincarnated. Every little bit helps, especially if the balance is already tipping toward reincarnation as a dung beetle or one of those birds that picks dead meat out of crocodiles’ teeth. And, although superstitions are generally inconsistent with Buddhist beliefs, many people consult astrologers to tell them how many of these little birds to set free to balance out a bit of naughtiness, or give extra power to especially important prayers.

You go, little finchy!

You go, little finchy!

It’s quite an uplifting feeling to watch that little creature flutter into the sky from your outstretched hands, carrying your good intentions into the world. The first time I tried it, I was so exhilarated, I ended up buying out the girl’s whole basket of birds. At 30-something finchies, it was the best fifteen bucks I’d spent in a long time. If it keeps me from being reincarnated as a Muni driver, so much the better.

Finch LadyThat girl was waiting for me on the same corner the next day. I knew I was being had, but I was happy to go along with it, and cleaned out her finch inventory again. It really puts you into a good mood to release those little guys and watch them streak off to freedom. That and a good breakfast pretty much ensure that you’re going to have an awesome day.

Girl with finches-2Then some killjoy told me that the birds are trained to return to the owners, and they end up back in the same basket the next day. I didn’t want to believe it, so I asked around, and it’s apparently true. I have no idea how you train a finch, but I guess it’s doable. So, perhaps I released the same bunch of birds two days in a row. But, I say, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! It’s still magical to hold that quivering little body in your hands, feel it pinch you impatiently with its dainty beak if you take too long formulating your wish, and see it take off and reclaim its liberty. Setting it free is all I can do; if the bird has been trained to surrender itself again after being emancipated, that’s on someone else’s karma account. And, maybe one or two of those tiny guys took advantage of the chance to make a real break for it, and didn’t come back. I hope so.  Unless they get eaten by bigger birds or lizards or something.  If so, then I hope they were back in the safety of their basket by nightfall.

Basket of finchesI was so entertained by this finch thing, that I even took some requests from friends back home, and made wishes for them by proxy when I would encounter the finch girls at a temple. I was running out of things to wish for, anyway, so it worked out.

One day, at a temple in Bago, after I had made finch wishes for health and happiness for all my loved ones, strength to those I know who are going through something, peace in places of conflict, and all the selfless, benevolent things I could think of, and placed the special orders given to me by folks back home, I figured I had earned a selfish one that I could use for something vain.

A bird in the hand.

A bird in the hand.

So, on my last birdie of the day, I cupped him lightly in my hands and wished to drop a couple of dress sizes. Now, I’m normally pretty sorted out about being on the fluffy side, but I’ve been traveling in Asia for almost a year now, and I’m here to tell you, if you aren’t built like Olive Oyl, you will be told several times a day, by well meaning, smiling people, how fat you are. It isn’t malicious, but it isn’t exactly a compliment either, and it kinda gets to a girl after a while. So, there I stood, fervently wishing on a finch that my booty be a little less…well, just less.

Go on, little guy!  Please?

Go on, little guy! Please?

I stretched my arms up and opened my hands to release the finch to the sky…and he didn’t budge. I brought my hands down and had a look at him. He just sat there. I shook my hands a little, to encourage him, but he just looked at me and cocked his head to the side.

Nothing doing.

Nothing doing.

The girl, probably concerned she would have to give me a refund for this one, got up and tapped pretty hard under my hand to boost him into the air.  He just hopped down to the cage and got back inside. He wasn’t going anywhere with that wish.

So much for that. Looks like I’d better hang on to my stretchy pants!


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Whatever You Do, Don’t Crap Bananas

Myanmar FlagMingalaba, gentle friends! Greetings from Myanmar.

Oh, Myanmar. You really made me work for it, didn’t you? Having your embassies reject my visa applications because I wasn’t applying in my home country, giving me the run around about the visa-on-arrival program, and then finally having mercy on my passport in Singapore, notwithstanding the “Don’t Even Think of Applying for a Visa Here if You’re Not a Legal Singapore Resident” signs at the consulate.  And, now that I’m finally here, you’re trying to kill me.

Myanmar restaurant, but not the one where the fish bone got me.

Myanmar restaurant, but not the one where the fish bone got me.

First, there was the wily fish bone. I am not a picky eater, but I am a bit fussy about fish with little, thin bones. Perhaps there is a repressed, early childhood trauma at the root of it, I don’t know, but the idea of getting a fish bone stuck in my throat strikes such dread in me that I normally will have nothing to do with anything made from a fish smaller than a coffee table.

Mr. Ko in the Shan mountains.

Mr. Ko in the Shan mountains.

But, when my driver, Mr. Ko—who I only later discovered was not named Mr. Ko at all, but had told me to call him by that name (which, apparently, translates essentially to “Mr. Sir”), because he correctly surmised I would never be able to pronounce his real name—took me to a restaurant in a rural village in northern Shan State, and communicated as best he could in his limited English that the fish soup, made from a smallish catfish caught that day in the rice paddy, was the best, freshest thing on offer, I reluctantly acquiesced. And, of course, even though I was hyper-careful, I promptly got a bone stuck in my throat.

Evil fish bones.

The evil fish bones.

Pandemonium ensued in the little café. Good god, they couldn’t kill a foreigner, it would be terrible for business! After much shouting in Burmese and arm waving, the owner’s daughter rushed over with a bunch of bananas. Mr. Ko grabbed them, quickly peeled one, and handed it to me, urging me through hand gestures to eat it to knock the bone down my gullet.  I put a hunk of banana in my mouth, and as I began to chew, Mr. Ko exclaimed, “Don’t crap!”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Don’t CRAP!” he insisted.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” I assured him, as I continued to chew the banana.

Shan bananas.  Shananas.

Shan bananas. Shananas.

“DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DOOON’T CRAAAAAAAAAAP!!!!” he exhorted anxiously. Then, he put the back of his hand under my chin to stop me from chewing, and I finally got it. Makes sense, of course.  The banana has to be in one piece to knock the offending bone down, not chewed into goo that would slide around it. But, I could, at least, breathe with the bone stuck in there, and I was imagining a plug of banana getting lodged on top of the bone and cutting off my air, so I was hesitant. But, they all seemed to think it was a good idea, so, lacking any better solution, I complied. And it worked. As soon as I swallowed a piece of uncrapped banana, the bone dislodged, and peace was restored.

Hsipaw Train Station.

Hsipaw Train Station.

Then came the treacherous train. Two days after the fish bone incident, I got on a train in Hsipaw headed toward an old British hill station in the mountains north of Mandalay.  Myanmar RailwayI decided to spring for the extra forty cents to have a seat in the “First Class” car, which, as far as I could tell, differed from the “Ordinary Class” only in the assignment of individual seats, instead of open seating on benches.  Definitely worth forty cents.

MR BoobsWhen I got to my assigned seat, I noticed these fabric seat covers printed with a symbol that resembled saggy breasts. Having also seen this symbol painted on the entrance to various ladies’ restrooms, and noticing that the only other person seated in that area of the car was an elderly woman, I concluded that the symbol must be the Burmese character representing “women,” and these seats must be reserved for ladies.

LadyI made a conscious decision not to think any further about whether they were specifically reserved for old ladies with saggy breasts, and whether or not it was fair that I had been relegated to that zone without a proper inquiry.

Ladies' Room.

Ladies’ Room.

Turns out I was wrong, anyway. I later learned that the symbol is the Burmese word “ma,” which means both “women” and the abbreviated form of “Myanmar,” which is why it is printed on the seats of the Myanmar state railroad.  So, there you have it.

Bag o' tea.

Bag o’ tea.

Cheroots.

Cheroots.

My seat neighbor turned out to be quite a dame. She brought out tins of dried, sugared mango slices, tied plastic baggies of milk tea, and packages of cheroots—small, hand-rolled cigars—and passed them around to everyone, before producing a deck of cards and inviting folks to come play.

Game3She didn’t have to twist anyone’s arm, let me tell you.  Before I knew it, someone had upended a vegetable basket between the seats and placed a cushion on top to form a card table, and an ever-growing group of people crowded around, laughing, and smoking, and happily gambling away the meager contents of their respective wallets. Game4She offered to deal me in, but I couldn’t figure out what game they were playing, so I judiciously declined.

Systematically, that fabulous old broad took each of those guys to the cleaners. When one of them busted out of the game, she offered to buy his cheroots off him so he would have money to keep playing. Game2He went for it, and then she won the money back off him, leaving him without smokes or coin. She did it with such affable charm, though, none of her victims seemed to mind. I really admired her.

In the meantime, the train was bucking through the mountains like a bronco with a bee in its butt. Kids on a trainThe coaches jumped and jerked so violently, there were times when even my ample behind was thrown all the way into the air. We all had to hold on to keep from being pitched onto the floor, not that it disrupted the card game in the slightest. You could see through the aisle door how the coach ahead of ours was jerking and rocking back and forth like a metronome on amphetamines. It was more than a little disconcerting, but none of the other passengers seemed worried, so I figured it must be normal, and tried to roll with it. No pun intended.

Now I know why they included life insurance in the ticket fare!

Now I know why they included life insurance in the ticket fare!

I was concerned about angering Dale, though. He’s been pretty tame lately, and the fear of antagonizing him with this rock n’ roller coaster ride was real. Ultimately, after about five hours of being relentlessly jolted and jostled, I got off the train and got a private car down the remainder of the mountain.

Shan Noodles.

Shan Noodles.

That is why, when the train derailed in the forest about a half hour later, I was happily stuffing my face with Shan noodles at a roadside tea house, watching the “Chinese Horsemen” come down the highway from nearby China, carrying cheap, refurbished motorcycles—jocularly called Chinese Horses—on the backs of their own motorcycles, illegally importing them to waiting customers in the rural hill tribes.

Pyin Oo Lwin.

Pyin Oo Lwin.

I would never have known about the train crash, but the next day, in Pyin Oo Lwin town, I was accosted by a woman shouting “Hey, there you are! What happened to you?” When she caught up to me, she said she recognized me from the train, and that they had looked everywhere for me, but no one could find me. To the nonplussed look on my face, she said, “Did you get off early?” I said yes. “So, you don’t know that the train derailed?” No, I most certainly did not.

From the train window, shortly before I got off, and it crashed.

From the train window, shortly before I got off, and it crashed.

She then told me all about it. Apparently, three coaches, including the one I had been in, jumped off the tracks in the woods, far from any town or station, or even the highway. I worried about the card playing granny and her cohorts, but I was assured that no one was hurt, thankfully. The coaches had gone off the rails to the left, into a clearing, instead of to the right, which would have sent the whole train tumbling down the mountainside into a very deep ravine.

Shortly before it derailed.

Shortly before it derailed.

Someone called the police from a mobile phone, and the Gendarme soon came with pick-up trucks to get people out and down to the next decent size town, which was Pyin Oo Lwin.  All train service between Mandalay and Lashio, the last town before the Chinese border, was suspended until further notice, so they could clear the mess off the tracks.

It all sounded very dramatic and inconvenient. I was so grateful not to have been there. Can you imagine? I would have crapped bananas.