Nat Friedman

From Bagan to Rajasthan

The main attraction in Bagan is the hundreds of ancient Buddhist temples scattered over an area of a couple of square miles. From one spot on the ground I counted 35 spires without turning my head. The area between the temples is farmland, and present-day farmers till their fields of radishes and mustard in the shadow of 1000-year old pagodas. The air is hot and dusty and at the end of the day your snot is orange-red.

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We spent a morning cycling around the deserted dirt trails that wind from temple to temple. We saw almost no one. Once we rounded a bend and found an old English couple seated on canvas chairs, sketching one of the temples with charcoal and art-supply paper. We stopped and said hello. Made of brick and regularly stepped, the temples beg to be climbed. “Do you think I can climb this?” I asked. “Of course,” said the English lady, “but mind the snakes.”

Whenever we stop we are surrounded by children. They sell hand-colored postcards and I can’t resist.

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We climbed into a balloon at dawn and floated through the heart of the Bagan temple zone. I was surprised at how low we flew. The pilot explained that the winds higher up were too strong. Tree tops brushed the bottom of the basket and we had spoken-voice conversations with people on the ground. At one point we dipped even lower so that we could see through the doorway of a temple. I made out the shape of a seated Buddha, glinting gold in the morning light.

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By chance we found a guide who offered to show us a local village that is not government-supported for tourist visits. He told us that they were very poor and in need of food and medicine. I smelled a scam but we went along anyway. Ten minutes from our four-star hotel we found ourselves in a cluster of thatch houses with no electricity and no running water. The well was a fifteen minute walk. We had brought rice, toothbrushes, and some medication from a nearby grocery store and gave them to the village headman. He assembled the 20 poorest families in the village and divided everything up evenly among them right in front of us. It cost less than one night at our hotel and these people were so eager, each receiving an equal portion of rice and 800mg of paracetamol. There was no scam, this was obviously just poverty. I felt like an idiot. Why didn’t we buy more? And what do I care about getting scammed out of rice and tylenol, anyway?

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After Bagan we went to Mandalay to check out the Burmese stomach flu, which we found both sudden and full-bodied, a potent bouquet of retching and myalgia. For two days we subsisted on Chinese crackers which were disgusting despite the lusty description on the packaging. We were glad for the generally high standard of plumbing in our guesthouse, and also for the rehydration salts our doctor had insisted we take along (his own brand called Drip Drop – tasty and effective).

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In Mandalay I was healthy long enough to take an afternoon Burmese class from the woman who ran our guesthouse. A sophisticated and intelligent older lady, fluent in English and an ex-university lecturer, she told me I was the first guest to ever ask for a lesson and was excited to teach me. She knew all about the evolution of Burmese, its relation to the Sri Lankan Pali, and the origins of its odd, circular script. It was a great afternoon.

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I do not have the natural language talents of Stephanie, who speaks five languages fluently, but I am always surprised by how easy it is to learn 20 words in a given language, and how much it changes your experience visiting a country. In the small amount of time I spent learning it, Burmese seemed simple, with no conjugations and few difficult sounds. After a couple of hours I could form simple sentences, and Stephanie and I spent the rest of our trip astonishing the local people with monologues like, “This is my wife. She comes from Germany. I am 33. We are hungry. We go restaurant?” It’s not poetry but I think anyone can get to that point in a couple of hours and it opens so many doors. We did the same thing in Cambodia and it changed everything about our trip, not only there but also in the Mekong delta in Vietnam, where we discovered that nearly everyone we met was of Cambodian descent and spoke Khmer as a first language.

From Mandalay we went to Kalaw for a day of hiking among the hills and relatively opulent local villas. This is yet another colonial hill town founded by white people to escape the heat of the colony. The hills were dry and it felt Mediterranean. Besides a strange situation in which our guesthouse presented laminated documents with government seals to prove that the guide we had independently hired was a bad man, “steals your money, builds huge house for himself, nothing for villagers,” we had a good hike (and found the guide to be 100% non-thieving).

Our last destination in Myanmar was Inle Lake, which is a giant shallow lake supporting several fishing villages built on stilts over the water. We thought it would be loaded with tourists and almost skipped it but as it turns out, nothing in Myanmar is overly touristy.

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The real attraction in Inle, for me, was the unique one-legged rowing technique of the local fishermen, which I tried to learn. It is unbelievably hard. Simply balancing one-footed on the skinny edge of a narrow plank on the side of a tiny canoe-boat is difficult enough. Actually paddling the boat around with the paddle hooked into the back of your knee without losing your balance was impossible for me. Never mind using your free hand to manipulate fishing nets while rowing, like the Inle fishermen do.

The actual technique, when practiced by a master one-legged Inle rower, does not look graceful, and in that regard I did very well, paddling in an improvised, jerky style without a hint of grace, and falling into the boat every two or three strokes.

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So, not in this lifetime.

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Meanwhile, we are in India. I’m writing this in a tented desert camp near the Pakistani border. It is quiet except for the screechings of Rajasthani birds and the roar of old MiG jets in service of the Indian air force that fly overhead occasionally, patrolling the border or maybe just flexing the might of the Indian military machine in full view of Pakistani radar.

India is loaded with culture and it’s a huge change from South East Asia. I have many things to say about this country, but first I have to get something off my chest.

What’s the worst part of traveling in India? It is the slimy men who proposition my wife while I am standing next to her. I don’t mean to generalize a country of over a billion people, but in our brief experience here it is the most slovenly, smelly, overweight and greasy men who seem to think they have the best chance with my wife. They make graphic overtures to her in the street. Perhaps it is because they are wearing sunglasses and have slicked their hair back that they have such a high self-opinion. In self defense I have upgraded my sunglasses, but it hasn’t done any good.

I am a gentle person and my wife is a sensitive traveler who dresses modestly in accordance with local customs. Nevertheless, several times in the last week I have had to refrain from triggering a cascade of events that ends with me talking to an American consul, and some pear-shaped Rajasthani slob visiting the prosthodontist. In light of these men, the custom of arranged marriage takes on a rather more sinister light.

Ok, that’s that. We have been miraculously healthy in India and have mostly shuffled from one desert fort to another. Tomorrow we mount Marwari horses with funny ears and ride three days to Udaipur for the Indian Holi festival. Pictures and so forth to follow.

13 March 2011
Show comments
  1. I figure that desert camp is near Jaisalmer? They have some really annoying touts there, probably the worst in all of India. If you leave Rajasthan however, things get a lot better, especially in the country’s heart where tourists are not the main source of income.

    The riksha drivers in Jaisalmer are particularly annoying folks, and never give up playing you for a sucker. It takes a bit of experience being able to ignore them completely and not reacting at all to what they say and do, but when you learn that you’ll have a much better time.

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  2. If it makes it any better, traveling with a ‘good looking’ girl is tough even for indians. I am not joking.

    The heart of practically all problems in india is the custom of arranged marriages. Men get laid regardless of their uncouthness and get away will all sorts of crap thanks to the fact that women are taken away basic stuff like education at a young age (so they have no chance of making a living of their own or have opinions when they grow older).

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  3. I am an Indian and my Indian wife says that it’s true for 90% of Indian men. Facepalm.

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    1. You gotta agree that there are some pretty greasy men out there. Bleah.

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  4. I haven’t seen that too much, but I have never really traveled much outside of South India. People here are not as nutty as I guess what you’re experiencing in Rajasthan. Indian society suffers from sexual repression in the worst way. I don’t think it was always that way but it is now. Plus as someone said about arranged marriages where the girls are not educated I believe that is true. Some parts of India are still stuck in the early 1900s in terms of womens right.

    I hope the rest of your trip in India is much more pleasant. And for godsakes stay away from the Indo/Pakistan border.. that way dragons be.

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    1. I usually don’t chime in just to say +1 but this comment deserves it. Well put!

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  5. I think those “bad men” assume that westerners, who live-together, have casual sex, wear bikinis and remarry more than Indians do, don’t have any moral values about sex and try to behave badly! I apologize on their behalf. :-(

    I wish you a pleasant stay in India.

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  6. Hello Nat, Welcome to India or should I say “Accidentally United States of India”. It is a big ancient country going through lot of change and any generalizations (good / bad) are going to be incorrect.

    My theory is most uneducated (and even some educated) people here have formed their views about westerners (men and women) based on what they see in Hollywood movies, and other forms of entertainment that comes from USA and also local tabloids. Just recently Pamela Anderson was invited on a fairly popular TV reality show, can you believe it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_states_ranking_by_literacy_rate
    As a simplistic guideline, you can refer to state wise literacy rates. Quality of tourist’s experience in those state is going to be directly proportional to literacy rates (and also perhaps employment rates). Poorer states are going to be desperate to profit from tourism.

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    1. Yes, apart from nudity of top actors in mainstream movies, TV shows like baggage, Keeping up with kardhashians, FTV… do play a role.

      Also there are many wrong, but positive assumptions about west, like all westerners are intelligent and well-mannered, all scientific inventions are invented by westerners, only products from west are of good quality, there are no petty thieves in the west, there are no poor people abroad, every one in USA is educated as they can all speak English,…

      Also I see few educated Indians who are well mannered, when they are traveling abroad, but behave badly, when they are back in India, which is very unfortunate.

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  7. I have more interest in this country. Of which have never been to before, I like it.

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  8. great……… post

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