Travel Karma

Travel karma is the bad luck, bad weather, bad room, bad case of Montezuna’s revenge… all the moments that you hope you’ll look back on and laugh about someday. That Jamaica honeymoon your brother booked, and the hotel had a fire? Blame it on travel karma. Our week on Malta in the autumn month that the travel agent swore got only 2-3 days of rain, and we were there for all 5 of them? Oh, yeah. It was travel karma.

There’s nothing you can do except shrug your shoulders, find a comfy café to hang out, and pull out the book you brought along.

Travel karma is other moments, too. It’s serendipity, the magic of being in the right place at the exactly right time. It’s the town festival you stumble into while out exploring. Travel karma is the restaurant with the fixed price menu that turns out to include champagne throughout the meal. It’s when you jump on a train 10 seconds before the doors close to leave.

Every so often travel karma gives you a heady dose of both moments…

We booked a charter flight to India.

Where we were headed
Where we were headed

I don’t always sleep well on the eve of a trip, and slept especially poorly this night. The next morning we were on a very early ICE train to Frankfurt to get our flight to India. The ICE is a sleek, fast train that makes few stops and great time.

I hauled my train pass out of my travel purse out of my day back for the train attendant to check. Tired, I reminded myself that I would need to put the pass back in the purse and the purse back in the day pack.

I didn’t.

We got off the train and headed up into the airport. A few horrified minutes later I realized my purse was right where I’d left it, on the seat of a train now heading to Amsterdam… containing my passport. And my credit cards. And my train pass. And $$s. And €€s, all the ready money I was carrying as we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find cash machines.

We could get more cash in the airport and use Uwe’s credit cards, but I wasn’t going anyplace unless I got my passport back. The helpful folks at DB (Deutsches Bahn) contacted the train and they checked: my purse still lay on the seat where I’d left it! The problem was that the next scheduled stop for the ICE wouldn’t be until Köln, several hours up the tracks. DB would hold my purse for me there. There was no way I’d have my passport back in time for us to make our plane.

It was too late to do anything but rebook the flight to India. If I said “Uwe, I’m soooo sorry!” once, I said it 100 times. Man, did I feel awful. But – it was travel karma.

Uwe climbed on the next train heading back to Stuttgart (looking a whole lot less happy than he had early that morning) and I caught a train to Köln. The DB personnel hadn’t been able to report if my purse still contained my valuables. My passport was stamped with the resident alien visa that allowed me to remain in Germany. And without my passport I couldn’t head back to America to see my country, or my family, or go anywhere, for that matter. I felt oddly vulnerable. This situation was bad, and the more I worried about it, the worse it became.

As I sat on the train I bargained with the travel gods: “Just leave me the passport.”

When we reached Köln I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since supper the night before. I wasn’t ready yet for good/bad news about my purse. I bought myself a sandwich and a coffee and stalled for five minutes. Then it was time… I headed to Lost & Found and told someone my story. Of course, I no longer had any ID to prove who I was. He asked me to describe the purse and what was in it.  I flinched inside as I told him.

The nice man vanished into the back and returned with my purse. “Go ahead and check that everything’s there,” he suggested. I know my hands shook as I unzipped it and looked.

Not a pfennig had gone missing. I shrieked Ya-hoo! and he laughed. Then I said thank you and left the little office.

I went directly to the flower vendor kitty-corner to Lost & Found and bought the largest bouquet of white blooms they offered. I marched with the bouquet back into the Lost & Found office. The employees all looked up astonished when they saw me again.

My voice quavered. “These are for all of you. It’s not enough just to say, ‘Thank you for doing your jobs’. It’s so great to know that there are still honest, helpful people in the world!” Nonplussed, they accepted the flowers, but everyone was smiling.

The train trip back to Stuttgart from Köln took 3 hours. The next charter flight to India left 3 days later. When we got finally got there I had one of the most amazing trips of my life. I probably used up a lot of good travel karma on that day I had to journey to Köln, but I hope I’ve added to my karma account since then. And I will never, ever forget my belongings on a train going anywhere. That’s one lesson I’ve learned!

© Jadi Campbell 2013. Photos © Uwe Hartmann. More pictures from India and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

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En route
Hubli
6-8th century Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist cave temples, Badami.
Nandi Purmina festival Hampi, India
Nandi Purmina festival
Hampi
Goa
Goa

Death On A Wet Road Between Towns Without Names

Gabe was grateful that in all the years of his travels, no one had ever thought to inquire, “What’s the worst experience you ever had traveling? What’s the worst thing you ever witnessed?” The day he spent being witness outside of Krakow, Poland in the Auschwitz concentration camp was a terrible experience he never wanted to repeat. The atrocities humans committed against one another was beyond comprehension. And it wasn’t ancient history. It had happened in his parents’ lifetimes.

He could never understand the racism that had been involved. What could there possibly be in an identity or religion that would make someone want to wipe out an entire people? It was inconceivable to him, and he sent up a fervent thank you to whatever gods might be listening that this was so. No! There were some things he didn’t ever want to understand. Auschwitz broke his heart. Gabe cried his first adult tears sitting on a cold bench in front of an execution wall.

Sometimes for his month of travel he headed to the heat. He always had a loose theme to the four weeks, and one year it was ancient lost cultures. Mexico96_107He traveled through a region where jungle archaeologists were reclaiming entire cities from the undergrowth.

DS1_1297Gabe got up early and caught the local bus. He spent happy hours at the site, with satisfaction doing what he’d come to call connecting some of the dots. If the world were a large puzzle, a Pointillism painting, Gabe’s slow explorations gave him more of the pieces to the puzzle, more and more of the dots in which a picture was slowly emerging.

That day he made further connections in terms of ancient civilization, art history, and cultural contexts. Gabe was overly pleased with himself. He decided not to wait for the next bus to rumble past the ruins. DS1_1310Mexico96_119Ignoring the rain clouds threatening the skies, he began the long walk back to his hotel in town.

Twenty minutes later Gabe knew he’d miscalculated badly. The rain clouds blew lower and closer in no time. At the halfway point, the storm broke. Gabe would get soaked if he kept on the road and equally as drenched if he tried to turn back to the bus shelter at the entrance road to the ruins. He pulled his rain jacket (a marvel that rolled up upon itself into a small ball with a carrying band) out of his little daypack and went on trudging, shaking his head at his own foolish optimism.

Potholes filled first, creating wet craters. Gabe got closer to town and the traffic increased, the wheels of old cars and carts churning the rest of the street into ruts. In less than ten minutes the single dirt road turned to roiling mud. It rained even harder, hard drops that fell in steady, monotonous sheets. Gabe moved over closer to the shoulder away from the biggest vehicles. He had to share the edge of the muddy street with other people on foot, vendors pushing carts covered with folds of plastic cloths or sheets of cardboard, and bicycles and motorbikes.

The rest of the traffic converged in the center of the street, trying to find spots that hadn’t yet vanished into a river of wet earth. A motorbike with a family on the back passed Gabe. The father drove slowly, trying to keep the bike from tilting over into the stream. His wife sat behind him with her arms around and underneath the clear plastic rain poncho her husband wore; a small boy perched, balanced in the seat behind her. He was wedged between the woman and the sacks of potatoes and peppers lashed to the rear of the motorbike.

There was a blare of arguing horns and out of the storm a jeep appeared. Sheets of rain obscured the view. The jeep driver headed alarmingly fast down the direct center of the road, his horn louder as the jeep got closer. When it was near enough people could see it was a government vehicle, and everyone moved over to the sides of the road to let it by.

Before anyone could grasp the danger the jeep was upon them. The driver kept one hand pressed on the horn as people scrambled in the mud. Gabe watched in horror as the motorbike with the family hit a pothole. The father put out a frantic foot trying to brake, but it was too late. The motorbike went over on its side. His body disappeared under water and the jeep ran over his leg.

People screamed for the jeep to stop but it never even slowed down; the driver now had both hands jammed on the horn and his foot on the gas pedal. He continued determinedly on down through the river of mud. Gabe could reach out and touch the bumper as it rushed by, it was so close.

The jeep was swallowed up in the sheets of rain and only the victims and witnesses remained. The jeep hadn’t carried any license plates and even if he had seen one Gabe was kilometers away from a police station. Who was he going to report to? All he could do was try to help the man who’d been run over. At least it had only been his booted foot, and that had been down in the pothole; maybe the man wasn’t hurt too badly.

Gabe turned back to the sodden street as rain rushed down his face and over his rain slicker. Through the damp he saw the fallen figures. The blare of the jeep horn faded, and a human voice’s wail began to compete with the sound of the waters crashing from the opened skies. Other voices joined the first one.

The traffic swerved around the center where people had gathered in a loose circle. Gabe moved closer and the driver dragged himself away from the fallen motorcycle. The man was limping, but he was up on his feet.

The motorcycle was already half buried by mud washing up over and against the frame in fast moving spurts; the bags lashed to the back of the bike had broken open. Lumps that had to be potatoes lay in the stream, some of them slowly rolling away in the force of the moving rainwater.

But the pair ignored the tubers and didn’t try to gather them back up. They huddled over another one of the sacks in the road as they wailed. Gabe tried futilely to push the water from his eyes. He shook his head to clear it, and then he saw the injured man and his wife were sitting in the mud as they held the body of their son. He lay like a broken toy, like a rag doll, small limp limbs dangling from his parents’ cradling hands.

The circle of people standing around them gently lifted the couple and half carried, half walked them over to the useless safety of the field at the side of the road. Gabe bodily lifted the damaged motorbike and carried it out of the street. Determinedly everyone moved back in the river that had been a road and collected potatoes. They ignored the blares of cars trying to navigate around them. They picked up the last of potatoes and the burst sack and returned them to the hapless parents.

Gabe thought, Where’s the nearest hospital? His next thought was the sad realization that a local hospital was probably located next to the nearest police station: a hundred kilometers away in the next city. A clinic, he thought desperately. But the country had no money for health services, and only Bread for the World and Doctors without Borders had any kind of a presence in the region. Gabe couldn’t speak any of the local languages and he had no training in anything more than the most rudimentary medicine.

Despairing, knowing there was nothing more he could do to help, Gabe resumed the harder trudge back towards the center.

Alone back in his hotel room, he drank to get blind drunk. Whether his eyes were opened or closed he saw the broken doll body of the undernourished child, the grief on the faces of the child’s parents. Worst of all was realizing his own helplessness to do anything whatsoever. There was nothing he could have done that afternoon to change the outcome and nothing he could do now. Gabe cried, for the first time since the visit to Auschwitz years earlier. They were bitter tears that refused to stop coming. Gabe was as unable to halt them as he was to halt the rains still falling outside of his room in the shabby hotel.

No one ever asked him, What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? Gabe knew it was the rainy day, the motorbike with a family riding on the back. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? If asked he wouldn’t have answered, because he carried the pain of that memory too close to his heart. It stayed alive and refused to fade. The worst thing he ever witnessed remained dangerously in real time, on a wet road between towns without names. It created a place of secret despair and awareness that the world was not a place of entirely benevolent forces.

It became his most closely held secret. Despite the sad knowledge, or perhaps because of it, Gabe determined to live as if the opposite might be true. That experience was seminal, one that defined who he was as a human being, in the inner place where his heart really beat.DS1_1367

– from my short story “Waiting” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to my earlier post 2,000,000 Wrinkle-lipped Bats for more of Gabe’s travels.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Mexico and Cambodia, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Despair Is An Exotic Ingredient

Dragon fruit
Dragon fruit, Laos

In a post titled Punctured, we met Jeremy: he works in a food co-op and is bitten by a gigantic Thai centipede. Earlier Jeremy worked in a coolants factory that moved operations; repaired stereo turntables until CDs took over; and serviced video stores where the only genre patrons regularly rented was pornography. Then, with the advent of on-line downloads, those shops closed as well.

He’s tried to involve his wife in some aspect of each new venture. Now Jeremy’s at the co-op, and Abigail’s nervous…

Pomolo, Mekong Delta Vietnam
Pomolo, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Jeremy got a job at the market and the offerings for her continued education went from disks to baskets full of items Abigail couldn’t begin to identify. “Whole foods?” Abigail asked bewildered. “What, have I been cooking halves all this time?” Her culinary repertoire consisted of items like tuna surprise, or flank steak with teriyaki sauce.

Jackfruit, southern Goa, India
Jackfruit, Organic farm, Goa, India
Water buffalo, market Luang Prabang, Laos
Water buffalo, Luang Prabang, Laos
Mekong seaweed, Laos
Mekong seaweed, Laos

As Jeremy introduced new ingredients for her to cook, Abigail despaired. The experiment with pornography had wearied her in more than just her body. The effort to familiarize herself with her husband’s latest employment arena was too much. Abigail couldn’t even begin to cook with broccoli rape, celeriac, rose apples, or salsify

just looking up the latter food and realizing that it was a vegetable also known as oyster plant rendered it too foreign. If she didn’t know where to start with a real oyster, how in the world would she find her way around a dastardly, cleverly named root vegetable you had to wear rubber gloves to prepare?

Abby stood in her kitchen, lost. She resented feeling inadequate, but she felt guilty, too. Nothing says loving like something in the oven. Which part was true, she wondered. Love, for whom? Something in the oven, but what?

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Preserved eggs, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Chin lau, Bagan, Burma

Her husband had assaulted her senses one by one. First it was her sense of touch with the air conditioners. Sound had proved inadequate with the stereo shops. Her senses of sight, sound and touch were simultaneously overwhelmed by pornography. Currently the food store derided her sense of taste. Abigail wondered depressed what would be next for her sense of smell.

Abby leafed through the cookbook he bought her and sighed, looking without success for familiar ingredients. Miracle whip. Devils food cake. Cowboy beans and chili. A slice of American cheese on a burger. Jell-O with fruit cocktail. When she confessed this to Jeremy, he said, “I married a Betty Crocker cliché.”

He had been dismayed when she first cooked for him. After all those great meals in exotic countries of curries, tom yum gum soups, and completely fresh ingredients, Abby’s cooking was like going from Technicolor to a 50’s black and white film clip. She served fish sticks bearing little resemblance to the fish dishes of his recent memory.25200_V_10_18_34

Vietnam

Vietnam
All dishes prepared on boats in Halong Bay, Vietnam

“I made homemade tartar sauce!” she announced proudly.

Jeremy spooned out mayonnaise with pickles cut into it and smiled weakly.

The first time she tried to cook him Indian food Abigail choked almost to death because she had no idea that the whole spices all get taken out or pushed to one side, and are not eaten. Ditto with the hot chilies used for flavor.

Chillies, Hue, Vietnam
Chilies and mini limes, Hue, Vietnam

New ingredients were dangerous. For her, bourbon vanilla meant cheap cooking sherry. Cans of condensed soup were her friends.

Abby loved tuna surprise, and the most exotic dish she could cook was a quiche. “If life is a banquet,” she thought, “I must be cheese Doritos chips. I am flat cherry soda.”

– from my short story “Punctured” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to the post titled Punctured to read more about Jeremy.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

  • Salsify: also called scorzifora and ‘the poor man’s oyster’ (photo from Wikipedia)
  • Pomolo: gigantic relative of grapefruit, can grow to the size of a basketball
  • Dragon fruit: thick red rind is peeled away to reveal citrus fruit with pale flesh flecked with black seeds
  • Mekong seaweed: river weed harvested from Mekong River. Often fried in thin sheets with garlic or sesame seeds. In Luang Prabang, Laos, a specialty eaten with dipping sauce that includes pounded water buffalo skin as an ingredient
  • Chin lau: grows on bushes and tastes like lime

The World’s Largest Pile of Bricks

We love travel. I refer to traveling to new cultures and places as connecting the dots. With each trip I feel a little more connected to the world at large and to the various dots that make up my picture of this planet and we who inhabit it.

While in Burma, we took a boat up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Mingun for the day. Yet another fallen kingdom, Mingun is reknowned for the largest functioning bell in the world. It weighs in at 55,555 viss (90,718 kilograms or 199,999 pounds). The sound is a deep claaangg, rung by thumping the bell hard on the lip with a mallet. Mingun is also famous for the king who bankrupted his people with an attempt to outdo every shrine-builder who’d ever lived: King Bodawpaya wanted to build the huge stupa known as Mingun Pahtodawgyi.

It would be the highest in the world, a magnificent 150 meters tall, dwarfing everything built

How the stupa would have appeared finished
How the stupa would have appeared finished

prior to it.

Work began in 1790.

King Bodawpaya never finished his religious edifice. He ran out of funds; or, halted construction due to a prophesy that his realm would end when the building was completed; or, that completing the stupa would signal his death. An earthquake on March 23, 1839 dislodged the huge bell and damaged the structure beyond saving. The Mingun Pahtodawgyi became the world’s largest pile of bricks…

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Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Can you spot the teeny tiny humans in the photograph? (Click on the photograph)

The structure stands, all semi-finished 50 meters (150 feet) of it, roughly a third of the original planned height.

It’s a holy place and the faithful still come to worship. And the curious come to climb it [enter Jadi and Uwe, stage right]. Now, at any sacred Buddhist site, you remove your shoes at the base of the structure.

Going up, sir?
Going up, sir?

And you climb the stairs, barefoot, and then clambor on the ruins, barefoot, for one truly awe-inspiring view of the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding countryside.

View of the Irrawaddy River
View of the Irrawaddy River and several of Mingun’s gorgeous temples

Shan pilgrims in traditional outfits had also climbed the stupa and gave us the gift of their smiles and waves.

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Shan pilgrims
Shan pilgrims

It was a magnificent afternoon and yet another highlight of our 4 weeks in Burma.

Picnicking on the Edge
Picnicking on the Edge

It wasn’t until we were safely home again that I got a good look at Uwe’s photographs.

Go on, I dare you
Go on, I dare you
Just a few small jumps and you’re there

There was a photo I had taken, too.

Hope those bricks are stable!
Hope those bricks are stable!

All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. And click on the final image to enlarge it for an even better idea of how damaged the site is.

More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Warning: Waran!!

On another hot sunny day in southern Thailand we decided to walk on up the road to Khao Lak National Park. It’s a small park (parklet?), on the coast.

Khao Lak, Thailand
Khao Lak, Thailand

It’s the typical jungly sort of place, with hanging vines and strange flowers. DS1_2058

Khao Lak National Park

Khao Lak National Park

We had the park to ourselves as everyone else was sensibly back in air conditioned rooms or by the pool or beach. I found a spot on the rocks to take in the scenery.DS1_2040

Uwe was happy trying to capture a shot of the crabs scuttling along; I gazed off across the Andaman Sea.DS1_2043

A form out in the water came into focus. Something about it was off. The proportions were all wrong. And the size. And the shape; everything about it was odd.DS1_2012

“Uwe, what’s that? Do you see it?” I asked. By now I was standing with one hand shading my eyes, trying to identify what was in the water and heading our way. And then I did.

Look! It's a fish! No, it's an alligator! No, it's a... swimming giant lizard?!?!
Look! It’s a fish! No, it’s an alligator! No, it’s a… swimming giant lizard?!?!

My next comment was a loud “Holy s=&%!!!” and I backed up as the largest lizard I’ve ever seen emerged from the ocean and climbed up onto the same set of rocks, not three feet away.

DS1_2024The thing was bigger than I am. And defnitely more threatening – long curved claws, wicked powerful legs, and jaws that just went on stretching, showing way too many teeth.

Monitor Lizard, a.k.a. Waran, a.k.a. Stepchild of Godzilla...
Monitor Lizard, a.k.a. Waran, a.k.a. Stepchild of Godzilla…

I started moving away as I wondered with some part of my brain (the reptilian stem, no doubt!) if we could outrun the waran (probably not) or survive an attack (unlikely). But the… thing…. lumbered off in the opposite direction across the rocks. Thank goodness! I thought.DS1_2026

Where I saw a painful death from crushing jaws, Uwe looked through his lens at the photographer’s opportunity of a lifetime. My husband chased it. “Uh, honey, don’t you think maybe it’ll get aggressive if you get too close?” I nervously suggested. Not only I was going to have to bag his messy remains in about 5 minutes, but I’d need to fight the critter for the camera, just to have proof that I hadn’t lured Uwe into the park to murder him.

DS1_2031He ignored me and kept pace with the lizard across the rocks. DS1_2035DS1_2037Later he explained, “I wanted just one good shot of it flicking its tongue out! I didn’t get that close, really.” Silly me. So what if a prehistoric stepchild of Godzilla might be dangerous?

We’re still marveling at the close encounter, and weren’t surprised to learn that only the Komodo dragon is larger than the monitor lizard, or waran. The water monitor we saw was an easy 6 feet long.

These clever reptiles not only are strong swimmers: they climb trees to raid birds’ nests, too. Hey, you know what? The next time we go to Khao Lak, I think I might just hang out at the pool.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Thailand, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

A Massage at Wat Pho

Pieter was right: the temple massages at Wat Pho really were awesome. Lisa wasn’t surprised by how crowded the site was, because it was dazzlingly, exotically beautiful. All of the palace buildings had golden roofs that gracefully swooped down and curled back up towards the heavens. Guardian demons held up columns or stood with watchful eyes. Thai06_2584_018All of the surfaces were covered with encrusted diamond shapes of colored glass, or tiny mirrors. Throngs of tourists wandered with cameras and guidebooks, admiring the buildings that glittered in the bright Thai sun. WatPho3“It’s almost as if this entire site is winking at us!” Lisa exclaimed.

Lisa and Babs wandered with their own cameras until they found the traditional massage school. An attendant asked them what kind of session they wanted (how long? what style massage? rather from a male or female therapist, or no preference?) and assigned them numbers. Babs’s number was called first and she looked nervous as she vanished out of sight with a therapist. A few minutes later Lisa heard 32 announced. She stood up and a young Thai woman led her to a different building.

The slats of the rattan walls in the low open structure let in both light and air. Lisa was led to the back of the long room, filled with low mats to the left and right. All around her fully clothed people lay on backs or stomachs as Thai therapists pulled at their limbs. Her therapist pointed for Lisa to lie down, and Lisa watched intently as the Thai girl put her palms together in front of her chest and whispered a prayer. She took one of Lisa’s legs in her hands, and Lisa forgot everything around her as the therapist smoothed away the knots of travel.

###

In the tropical climate Babs’s own long blond hair had gone completely limp. Babs was miserable. She was pretending she wasn’t shocked and frightened of the foreign megalopolis. Thailand’s capitol city might be a short plane ride away from Singapore. In reality, Bangkok was light years distant from any sanitized, orderly place. Babs knew Lisa admired her for what she perceived to be Babs’s sophistication and worldliness, her previous international travel experience. But just a few days in Bangkok quickly forced Babs to admit how terribly narrow the contours of her worldly knowledge were.

She was terrified of the jostling throngs and afraid of the foreign faces hurrying down the streets. The Bay Area consisted of lots of ethnic groups, of Americans. The jumble of nationalities here was far too authentic. If one more sticky brown body brushed against hers, she would have to scream.

At the temple Babs had been unable to relax despite the massage therapist’s coaxing, dexterous fingers. She had lain fearful and stiff, horribly awkward as a stranger touched her. Babs left the temple with an uncomfortable awareness of how uptight she was and no idea of how to release it.

Her sinuses were clogged with humidity and the aromas of overripe fruits and other odors she couldn’t identify. The stench from open food grills just made her want to gag, while the sly, half closed eyes of the Buddhas in their strange rich temples frightened her. WatPho6They watched Babs, and on all accounts they found her wanting. The glittering Thai world was simultaneously far too blinding, and contained far too much clarity.Thai06greenBuddha

Lisa noticed nothing of how scared Babs was. Instead, Lisa charged head first into the contradictory experience of the crowded streets Thai06nighttrafficand serene, glittering temples. Thai06MonkBabs was dismayed first by her friend Lisa’s surprising lack of fear, and next by her startling physical transformation. For the first time in their friendship she was discerning a little stab of jealousy against plain Lisa.

– from my short story “Banged Cock” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Thailand, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Chugging Slowly Upriver in NW Burma, Part 3

We made a long trek to reach the Chin State. We had a day pass (tourists are not allowed to remain overnight in the Chin territory) and a guide to translate for us. Our hope was to reach the villages where the local tribes still have elders with tattoos, by tradition only the women. The government represses the tradition, and it was feared that it had died out.

We had no guarantees that the women would come out to meet us once we reached the villages. At some point in the journey I stopped caring, because every minute in Burma was filled with wonders. The long slow passage upriver had become a journey to a some where, a some thing else. We chugged slowly upriver in NW Burma on the Lemro, from the Rakhine to the Chin state.

Arriving
Arriving

After walking around for some time in the first village, the elders stood before us! It was literally as if we looked up, and there they suddenly were.

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We asked through our guide if Uwe might take photos. The elder women calmly answered in the affirmative. They were, after all, the reason we’d come so far to visit. The tribes are self-sufficient and produce nothing for the tourist market. To meet the female elders is the reason why foreigners come to the villages.

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We were meeting Laytu Chin women (also called Lemro or Laito). The Chin are of Tibetan-Burman ethnicity, and tattooing is practiced only among the southern Chin.

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To a woman they were calm, poised, and radiated confidence. When did the Chin begin tattooing? One claim is that the tattooing was done to make the women ugly so the Burmese kings would stop stealing them to use as slaves, but this claim has been discounted as myth. It’s our modern world that sees tattooing as unattractive and labels it ‘ugly’. It’s far more likely that the Chin women were tattooed in a rite of passage, and that the facial tattoos are a mark of social status and coming of age. The tattoos make the women beautiful.

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No one in the outside world knows just what these patterns signify. The tattoos may be stippling, dots, circles. The Laytu women we met have the most elaborate Chin tattoo, a spider web or rising sun pattern. Our guide told us the men had gathered the materials used in the tattooing process. Jens Uwe Parkitny reports being told that the actual tatooing is done by female tatoo artists.

The women walked us through the village, up to the school. It was originally funded by a foreigner and we were invited to make a donation. It was all very formal: the guide wrote out a receipt along with the amount, our names, and our nationalities.

D30_4957_0800One of the women was in charge of taking the money and handling the donation, but the task is rotated. He translated our questions, explaining that on each day a different woman takes on this task. The responsibility of supporting the village is shared communally.

On that day we were invited up into a home on stilts. In another Chin village we watched one of the old women work at a handloom. We visited a burial ground on the river banks, where the dead are cremated and offerings are set out for the deceased. When we finally set back down the Lemro River on that December 31st, the last day of the year 2009, Uwe and I knew we had journeyed a very far way indeed.

Once we were home in Europe I found myself haunted by the old women’s faces. We got online and began to search for anything we could find on the Chin.

We discovered that the tradition of tattooing hasn’t died out altogether after all. In his exquisite brochure “Im Porträt: Gesichtstatuierungen der Chin-Frauen in Birma” (“Chin Women of Burma and their Facial Tattoos: A Portrait”), photographer Jens Uwe Parkitny documents the Chin tribes and different tattoo patterns of each group. He has made it his on-going mission to document and bear witness to this extraordinary group of people and their traditions. The text is in German and English. This stunning booklet of photographs can be ordered from either of the following sites:

Munich Museum of Ethnology: http://www.voelkerkundemuseum-muenchen.de and

Hirmer Publishers http://www.hirmerverlag.de/

When Uwe and I discovered Parkitny’s brochure on the Munich museum website, we ordered it immediately. Parkitny has also published a new book entitled “Blood Faces” http://www.bloodfaces.com/ . All proceeds from his book go to a children’s charity in Yangon, Burma.

 (All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.