samedi 30 mai 2009

MAY 2009 A WONDERFUL MONTH OF TRAVELS





 

It began with the Continental Airlines upgrading me to B/F on their flight from Houston to Paris, as I had missed their connection to New York. I didn’t mind staying over an extra day! After a few days in Paris, which was highlighted by the presence of my brother Yitzhak from Portland and his energetic and extremely amiable son, Shmulik.

Then I took off to Kuala Lumpur where a very busy schedule had been organized by my good friend MunChing: included meeting with interesting people in the Media Company, nice dinners, a garden of butterflies, a sweet Chinese lady by the name of Man Lee, a lovely Malaysian diplomat and on the last day, visit to the Cuban Embassy in KL. Also got to see some good friends from Kuala Trengannu.

The highlight of the trip was certainly the days spent in Rangoon with my sweeties from Chaungtha Beach. Thinking about their adventurous nature to come and see me in Rangoon and the generosity of William, brings a smile of contentment to my face. New friends made include a very sympathetic Indian Doctor and a very generous man who runs an Orphanage..

After a few more days in Paris, it was a nice Air France Flight to Miami, a delightful day spent in the company of my sister. Every one should have a sister like mine, so that the men/boys will understand the unselfish care of a woman and an unconditional love. We discovered a new asian fusion restaurant in South Miami and the next day I was off to the Indians.

The time spent with the Indians is soothing as it has been ever since I began visiting them, doing various medically related projects, while I was a professor of Anthropology in Havana. Indians admire Fidel very much and once during the ceremonies I heard them praying for his health, anyone who can stand up to their oppressors, they respect of course..

Now back in Paris, to consolidate some projects to be done, which has a worldwide appeal, with help from Maurits in Phnom Penh; Munching in KL; Ron in Washington State, MiHu of the UmonHon…

I have just arrived back in Paris. Looking forward to a Turkish Dinner at Derya; hope to meet another aficionado of Myanmar.. I am already very excited about my next trip.. As Air France would take me to San Cristobal de la Habana.. That city of faded portals and vibrant emotions 

dimanche 24 mai 2009

You Listen Carefully, You will learn..say the Indians


I asked an Indian lady, whom I respect as an Educator among her people. Do you at times feel you are living in two different worlds?

I was thinking of the various changes that has taken place in the short period of three weeks in my life: Burma; Malaysia; Paris; Miami and now the Indians, and the constant changes I had to make in my thinking to be culturally sensitive and effective in some cases.

It is not that we have to live in two worlds, she corrected me, I have learned certain tools, you can say it is an expertise, which we can borrow from the other culture, so that we can be of better help to our people.

Indians never cease to amaze me and they have always an answer for me, if I am having any sort of emotional and intellectual conflicts. I had a wonderful time in Malaysia/Burma in the company of my Burmese, Malaysian and East Indian friends; then in Paris, a privileged life, but one that I have not integrated very well; to Miami to be with my sister, where I have to reconcile to so many different values: European, Jamaican and strong family systems.. and now with the Indians and thinking of my impending visit to my Little Lovely Island, mi isla rica, mi Cuba.

The lesson learned tonight is as follows, just because you have to surf through so many cultures in such short periods of times, don’t look at them as conflict causing, but look at each occasion as adding to your expertise to live among various cultures. Not all cultural interactions have to lead to conflicts.

I made a mental note to myself, the lack of integration on my part to the French Society is my own doing, in between the eagerness for Malaysia/Myanmar; obsession for Cuba; the desire to serve the Indian people…is my own doing, on my own volition.. it does not have to be that way. All my interactions are cross cultural.. and I have to be thankful for the expertise gained, with no inner or selfish arrogance about any one particular culture…as long as I don’t have a conflict about the cultures that I am comfortable with…

I am happy with cultures which have greater networks of social relationships.. Indians, Cubans, Asians, Jews are all good examples of that..

Thanks for that little lesson, dear friend, In this isolated village of Indians where I am now, far far away from Paris, La Habana or Kuala Lumpur.

vendredi 22 mai 2009

A nice morning at the Native American Indian Clinic


One of the great pleasures of working with Indians is the pleasant encounter one can expect from the patients.

Two things was taught me from the beginning:

Always make sure that your patients leave happier than when they entered.

Show respect to each and every patient who sits in front of you.

 

For a medical student, a patient presenting with Vitiligo is an intellectual challenge since it makes him think of the various autoimmune dysfunctions one associates with that sign. I have looked after this patient for a very long time, and when he started complaining of atypical symptoms, I thought it was time to investigate other autoimmune failures associated with Vitiligo. Sure enough he had vitamin B12 deficiency which is easily corrected with monthly injections and the symptoms were relieved. He had a very responsible position within the tribe and many times, he would come with the stress of the finance management of the tribe which was his responsibility.

 

Today he comes to see me, not out of any medical necessity, but to check on the status. The first thing I noticed about him was that his face was radiant, there was a nice colour to his face and that there were fewer wrinkles on his face and his smooth face made him look much younger than his 69 years.

 

I am the greatest supporter of this clinic, he said. Years ago when I went to see a Specialist in the nearby town, he asked, how come you are so well aware of your health and know all the laboratory measurements. He proudly said, we have dedicated people running a clinic at the tribe and they come to your office and tell you what is happening, they call you up and make sure that you keep your appointment, and they don’t just focus on your medical problem but talk about other aspects of life of interest to me.

 

I was looking in the Electronic Health Records, under what category shall I record this visit?

His fasting Blood sugar and 2 hour post prandial sugars are below 100, thus ruling out Diabetes from biochemical point of view. His Blood Pressure today is 128/66 affirming the efficacy and frequency of intake of the medication prescribed. Hemoglobin A1C is 6.0.

 

I thought this would be the time to launch into my explanatory model for his wellness.

You look well, keyn eyn hora, I evoked a Yiddish prayer. Yes I feel well. I think you are well because of two things that come to my mind: the lack of stress in your life and the spiritual life you lead.

It is not up to me to talk about the Spiritual life, but it is up for others to say. A truly spiritual person knows that inside of him. I am not a man given to many words, and I don’t feel a need to speak at occasions when the community gets together. But I have noticed one thing.. normally at the end of a speech by a member of the community, it is followed by Aho.. the Indian equivalent of an applause.. but when I finish talking, it is followed by silence. I take it to mean that what I said, those words have had an effect and that the praise for them are inside of the listeners rather than in the open. If someone comes to speak to me about spirituality I would speak to them about it

To me, I said, when I saw you this morning, I felt a power, a connection to the universe and all the energies around us, and I told myself, here walks a man who is well connected with all that exists in this universe.

 

When you come to see me, this relationship we have, is not a doctor patient relationship but a relationship based on mutual respect and the exchange we have is based on that respect. There is medical and spiritual exchange between us without us naming it as such.

 

He then told me, two incidents. He had gone to see the Cardiologist in the nearby town and was subjected to a battery of tests at enormous expense and he was sitting there, not knowing what to ask since the doctor had not entered into any sort of discourse with him. He wanted to note down what to say, and what all the doctor was said that , here is a prescription for you, which will take care of the problem and that you can fill it at a Pharmacy.

He has had no conversations with the doctor, the doctor has not informed him of anything more than saying every thing is fine, and had not given him the opportunity to enter into a discourse about his health. He felt very disgusted and walked out, thanking all the time the fine service oriented health care he receives at the Indian Health Services.

 

We had a fine chat. This is what a medical consultation should be like, the patient is very satisfied, his questions answered plus he feels that he was able to enter and touch the human world that we all inhabit. The doctor feels good that the long trip has been worth while and that the Indians continue to teach him that connection to the Universe.. which many of us consider an essential part of Spirituality…

jeudi 21 mai 2009

Life is a long vacation with intervals of work




The Pleasant Long Commute to work among the Los Indios..

 

How often do you begin your journey to work with a glass of French Champagne? I was inside the Air France Boeing 747-400, the last of the aircrafts to evoke romance and adventure, Seat 2K... Champagne, sil vous plait..

I was on my way to work.

People complain of long commute to work, but while pleasant, mine  is rather tortuous. Air France to Miami...Champagne...Foie de gras...Crevettes with noodles... cheese…a sweet wine to finish the dinner... a little sleep... write something... read something... within 9 hours, you are over Miami, and each and every time when my flight descends into Miami, I have the similar sensation of a lover waiting eagerly for his date..Miami never disappoints… Look a bit to the left... in the distance of less than 200 km lies San Cristobal de la Habana, with its fading portals and sensuality that traps the visitor into its tropical torpor… ah...through the Immigration and Customs in a jiffy, to the house of my sister. It is nice to have a sister, who also happens to be your confidante and counselor. It is my yardstick of friendship, if I introduce you to my sister Jackie (born in England but grew up in Jamaica), that is an indication that I like you... Her helper from Jamaica, I call her Miss Amazon because of her enormous size, had prepared a lovely spicy, stir fried dish of noodles, vegetables, stripes of beef… and the PG tips tea always tastes better at the home of my sister..

To lessen the impact of United States on my conscience and more importantly on my stomach, from whatever country I travel from, Miami is the first destination, it is that liminality of being neither here or there, which I like about Miami.. Also nice to have your sister and close friend living there, and who absolutely spoils you and looks after you... ah well...

She was driving me to the airport on my way to the Indians, to my work, for which I had entered USA, we wanted to have a Lebanese lunch at Maroosh in Coral Gables, she pointed out to an Asian Fusion restaurant in South Miami, called Origin, we changed plans and had a nice pan Asian fusion food, I tasted Amok made with Salmon, this humble national dish of Cambodia which always comes with the river/lake fish and my sister had a nice red curry with shrimp which had Thai flavours.

Time to say good bye to Miami, always a little sad even if I know that once again on June 10th the same Air France flight will bring me back to Miami.

Time to go to work!

Continental Airlines, seat 2E, from Miami to Houston, the food was plenty but lacked the vital taste the French food has, this evening it was Reuben sandwich, which was too heavy for me, a lentil soup, a couple of glasses of Californian chardonnay… Houston to Omaha was on a Continental Flight again, seat 1B... I slept most of the way. I no longer feel Jet lag as it is classically described but falling asleep at inappropriate hours could describe  the effect of long flights on me...

The Midwesterners are extremely friendly, polite and welcoming. Would you like a Ford Lotus?  asked the man behind the AVIS rent a car counter; I had no idea what he was talking about... I said enthusiastically Yes, as long as it has satellite radio, so that I can listen to BBC world services as the grey scenery passes me by along these lonely roads, away from Kuala Lumpur, far away from Paris…Rangoon... these are the places I think of as I drive to get to work… I know some patients or other are waiting for me...

53 hours after leaving Paris, here I was driving into the parking lot of the Indian Clinic where I would be working for the next few days. Within minutes of entering the clinic, once again I have forgotten all the other lives... the one in Asia, the other in Paris, the third in Cuba... this is where I am now, my mind and body and soul are all here...i am quickly integrated into the rhythm of the life here, in this desolate part of the United States, which the Indians call The Turtle Island..

At Lunch, I drove 50 km to the next town and ate at a Vietnamese restaurant, which never changes its flavours, I had my perennial favourite, Bun ga Xao and my colleague had Bun Bo Hue, better than the one I tasted in Hue itself… ah well.. That is now another story...

mercredi 20 mai 2009

Your Country, Leave it for a While.. You might Gain from It


LIVING ABROAD GIVES YOU A CREATIVE EDGE


To check that they had not merely discovered that creative people are more likely to choose to live abroad, Dr Maddux and Dr Galinsky identified and measured personality traits, such as openness to new experiences, that are known to predict creativity. They then used statistical controls to filter out such factors. Even after that had been done, the statistical relationship between living abroad and creativity remained, indicating that it is something from the experience of living in foreign parts that helps foster creativity.

Merely travelling abroad, however, was not enough. You do have to live there. Packing your beach towel and suntan lotion will not, by itself, make you Hemingway.

 

 

A good friend of mine from KL sent me this clipping from this week’s The Economist..

 

Living Abroad gives you a creative Edge..

 

Are the Jews born cleverer than others? A question from the school days.. part of the same propaganda about jews controlling the world trade or the Chinese being the asian jews..

Learned men has taught me, no it is not that a race is superior to another in intelligence, but certainly certain cultural characteristics can make them adapt well to a fluctuant life, which has characterized the jewish people over the centuries.

Recently at the annual celebration of the remembrance of the our slaver in Egypt nearly 3500 years ago, an important part of the ceremony is when the YOUNGEST is allowed to ask four questions. So the idea of questioning is instilled and a logic and reasoning taught indirectly to the child.

When I was a student in Swedent, the rabbi in Stockholm told me, Curiosity is the sign of Intelligence and all the cultures which nurture questioning and curiosity to know other things will be able adapt well in this world and survive and succeed..

This is what I thought about when I read this article.. yes going to Club Med is not going to get your neurons ticking, but living in another culture, will make you curious about the ambience which is alien to you.. and I always remember what my favourite writer in english language has once mentioned, talking about the turbulence of the West Indies he had grown up in..Out of conflicts come out action..

 

Australians travel and many of them live abroad for a while, and the country is better off for it. Being an Expat is different from being an immigrant, since the emotional overlay and psychological feelings are different.

The best example are the group of Expats from India that I have met, in Kuala Lumpur, superb individuals, on par on an international intellectual forum anywhere in the world. What a difference between them and the immigrant Indians of a century ago, or the tourists from the various countries who come to gawk at the man made structures of KL..

 

I have always lived in more than one country at any time in my life, except the early dependent years and feel I am much better off for it. 

Give it a try, live in another country which is not your own.. for a while…you will come out ahead..


{dedicated to Sharm, Abid, Brijesh and  MunChing in KL, who was an expat in NYC}

 

 

dimanche 17 mai 2009

How to Make a Difference... Myanmar

Just before they left Yangon, I called the three girls aside and with the help of William, discussed with them their plans for the future.
Ei To Win, the youngest one said, she is very interested in sewing and would love to become a seamstress. she needs a sewing machine to improve her skills and learn a living and support her family, rather than selling hats at the beach.
Tin Tin Aye, on the left, said she would like to learn English, so that she could hope to work in one of the hotels at the beach. She also was tired of being a hat seller at the beach. She already knows of a teacher who gives classes at his home and there are about five students taking English lessons. I asked William to find out about the classes to see how authentic are the classes and whether or not the teacher is committed .Otherwise to scout around the village to find an English teacher for Tin Tin Aye. She also supports her family.
Pa Pa Win the tallest on the right has been known for her talent to draw and sketch and make designs of clothes. This ambition is way beyond the scope of the village. She has already identified a teacher in the village of Bogalay in the Delta region of Ayerrawarry river. Fortunately she has an older brother and an older sister living there, and she could learn from the teacher while helping them out on their roadside stall selling food. 
Discussing with William, who would take charge of the matters in Chaungtha for the welfare of the girls and I with the help of my friends would like to make their dreams come true..English lessons for Tin Tin Aye; a sewing machine for Ei To Win and art and painting lessons for Pa Pa Win in Bogalay. He would inform me of the total on going cost of these, and I am sure it would be in the manageable range. Thank God he has a telephone number which can be reached from outside.
I am already looking forward to my next trip to Myanmar.. i will make every attempt to see the girls and William and also a kind doctor i have met who showed the tomb of the last Moghul emperor.. would love to do some Voluntary clinics for diabetes and also become involved in teaching the patients and the doctors in Yangon.  We will see.. as every one who is following the news from Burma, nothing is predictable...

samedi 16 mai 2009

Les Girls de la plage Chaungtha en Birmanie





this is  a short summary of the time spent with the girls visiting from Chaungtha.. the places we went together.. also there is a collage of Eric and his family, a very friendly person..

To Myanmar with Love.. Indeed





An Unusual Tale of Love in the time of Cyclones, Monks and Masters

Myanmar is a mysterious country. Politically speaking, which I rather not do, it has been stuck in the 1950s. Once a gem among the emerging Asian countries now relegated to the status of a pariah.

But, Myanmar has also the sweetest, the gentlest and kindest people in all of Asia! Read about this encounter of mine, just last week, in May 2009... I am as full of nostalgia as I sit here in Paris and recollect the events...

A new guide book for the connoisseur has been published by thingsasian.com in SF, containing personal stories by veteran travelers to Asia and especially by those who had fallen in love with Myanmar. I have two stories in the book; one is about the Hat Vendors of Chaungtha Beach, in the Ayerawarry Division. Three little girls of the village that I had befriended in October 2005 on my first visit there. They were unsure of their ages or dates of birth. I was with a group of my Burmese friends and all of us had a good time together. I went back in December 2005 and at this time made arrangements for some education from the monastery for the three children. In 2006, a Kayin friend of mine, Nyi, went by bus from Yangon and fetched the three girls, two of the brothers and one of the fathers. This was their first ever visit to Yangon. We went to the Schwedagon Paya, let them experiment with various types of food not easily available in Chaungtha, and took them to the night market to buy clothes. They stayed at the home of a friend of mine in Saunchang Township. The visit lasted about four days. I clearly remember getting into the taxi to go to the airport, in front of a Burmese restaurant in Saunchang Township.

Then came the events of 2007 and the destructive cyclone of 2008. The group of young women I was helping to achieve their careers was all scattered, one to Siem Reap, the others working in various businesses... My contacts with them decreased and it was impossible to get hold of the girls of Chaungtha beach... no telephone connections, of course no internet and the uncertainty of postal services. During my two visits to Chaungtha I had befriended a native of Pathein, Mr. Win Htay, also called William who ran a restaurant in the main street. His own story is remarkable which I hope to record one day.

I thought about the girls, lamented the fact that I cannot reach them, nor could any of my Yangon based friends. The plans to educate them petered out, since the cyclone had wiped out most of the skeletal residences of theirs and the monks had been busy with other things, including travel.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on 4th May 2009, with intention of going to Yangon on the 8th, with absolutely no hope of seeing the children, unless I make the trip to Chaungtha, which is not an easy one do, but doable. Since my time in Yangon would be gulped down by new and old friends, I had given up on the possibility of ever seeing the children from Chaungtha.

On 6th May, a Wednesday, I thought of something, why not try to get in touch with William? I knew he would have a mobile phone, for his business, and fortunately a mutual friend in Cambodia, had recently been to Yangon and had spoken to him. Having armed with his telephone number, I held my breath as I dialed the number... communication with Myanmar is neither easy nor cheap... The phone rang and a voice came over. William, this is the doctor, do you remember me? You told me your story at your restaurant one night about 3 years ago. I am the friend of the three girls and you took me to meet the monk. I released a sigh of relief when he said he remembered me well. Then I asked him for a favour, would it be possible for him to give the girls a message? Please tell them that their friend the Cuban doctor, Aung Khant, the Burmese name they know me by, is coming to Yangon on 8th Friday that is two days from hence. I will pass on the message, he said. What he did not say was that, when he was speaking to me, he was at Mytikla, near Mandalay, a world removed from Chaungtha. For those who know the infrastructure of transportation and communication in Burma, would give up their hands up in frustration if they have to get a message to a village with no phone, water or electricity, hundreds of kilometers away . Now at least there is a possibility that the girls would know that I was thinking of them and Ojala, one day we can be together again.

The flight to Yangon was smooth and the procedures through the Immigration and Customs rather swift, since there were no tourists at all on this flight from KL, mostly indentured Burmese labourers being repatriated from Malaysia and Singapore.

American Indians say that when a journey begins, and something unpleasant happens, it is a sign that the journey augers well. The interaction with the taxi driver from the airport to Yuzana Garden Hotel was ordinary, like it was in any other country. I dismissed it on the faith of what my American Indian friends had said.

It felt good to be back in Yangon. Nothing has changed same scenery, same buildings, and same roadside shops. I started travelling to Myanmar in 2003, six years ago and since then I have been there 13 times (counting the number of Burmese visas on my passport)... have travelled from Mawlemayne in the south east to Mytikyna in the north, Sittwe to the west and on my first visit the usual tourist route of Lake Inle, Bagan and Mandalay. Also have travelled up the river up to Bhamo. I can easily blend in with the population that is truly a blessing in Burma, not to be thought as a foreigner.

During the many visits, one learns many tricks of the travelers. Don’t use the telephones of the hotel (they charge 10 times as much), stock up on goods from the supermarket nearest to you, eschew the hotel breakfast of boring toast and eggs and have some mohingar noodle soup at a shop nearby. Arrange everything through friends at Travel Agencies rather than doing it yourself, and travel with Burmese friends wherever you go…

The day was bright; I knew that just outside the hotel there was a place to use telephone. I sauntered over there. I had a list of people to call: the home of my oldest Yangon connections, the family with whom the girls had stayed, the home of PhyuPhyu and her mother; a doctor who is interested in setting up something in Diabetes Care; William my friend from Chaungtha to enquire about the girls; Su Yee whom I had met in KL; Stellar a new Shan friend from Yangon among others.

I decided to call the home of PhyuPhyu and her mother. I dialed the number. Imagine my surprise when unfamiliar voices came over the phone. I cried out, PhyuPhyu? No answer but some giggles...This is the telephone number in Saunchang township... why these giggles and no answer... a little later, a familiar voice comes over.. Hi Friend, this is William and where are you? I was so taken back, shocked in a sense; I forgot to ask if anyone else were with him. Where are you staying? I told him, Yuzana Garden Hotel, and he said... wait for me there, I will be there within half an hour.

American Indians always say, nothing happens without a reason, everything is connected. I walked back to the hotel with trepidation, are the girls from Chaungtha here? How did they get here? Did William come with them? Where will they stay? How many days? Are they really here?

Within half an hour, to the pristine lounge of the Yuzana Garden Hotel, under the curious eyes of the door men and the receptionists, two taxis disgorged a collection of people.

They all had one thing in common, they looked tired from a long journey, they looked hungry and they badly needed some shower and a rest.

The girls from Chaungtha ran out of the taxis one by one and embraced me and they were ranting in Burmese with tears in their eyes and with smiles so broad that my heart was on the brink of a breakdown. Tin Tin Aye the impish of them all, Eh To the smallest and the sweetest looking and Pa Pa Win, my favourite and with a face and colour so similar to mine that she can easily pass off as my daughter…that is what she would become by the end of this trip!

Two mothers, three siblings... altogether eight of them... and with them was William... everyone was excited, the hotel staff confused but amused...

William is from Pathein and is not that familiar with Yangon, but we were able to ask around and find a hotel for them nearby, within walking distance.

My friend, the girls are very hungry, so let us take care of it. To the Mohingar place in front of the hotel, and for a modest sum they had their fill. They had bags with some clothes and the youngest sibling was busy suckling his mother. They looked truly bedraggled and in need of rest.

After the repast, they composed themselves, still unable to believe, they or me, that they were in Yangon and we were once again together after an absence of three years, almost to the day!

William began explaining. When I called him from KL, he was visiting his wife’s family in Mytikla near Mandalay. How to go about this? He decided to call the Monastery, near where the girls and their families lived. After several tries, he was able to speak to the girls. He told them Aung Khant will be in Yangon, day after tomorrow. They unanimously wanted to come. But there were several problems to be overcome.

First of all, none of the families had the money for bus fare to Yangon. The regular bus that leaves at 0600 hours every day for Yangon arrives in Yangon around 12 30 pm. So if they left on Friday morning, they could reach Yangon around noon on Friday, just about the time my flight would be touching down. That meant that William had to leave his wife, moving her from one hotel to another, on the night of Thursday, so that he can arrive in Yangon to wait for the girls. In fact he arrived 0400 on Friday morning, and waited until noon when the girls wandering around the Yangon bus station could spot him.

He called the bus operator in Chaungtha. He promised them that he would personally pay the bus fare to the driver when they reach Yangon. He called back the girls and told them to get on the bus on Friday Morning and that he will wait for them at the Yangon Bus station, which by the way is way out of the city.

Who among the ordinary people of Burma has enough money to lay out this? What if they couldn’t meet me in Yangon? Where were they going to meet me? Apart from the fact that I may be in Yangon that day, they had no idea how to get in touch with me. The ingenuity of the people who have nothing, but their emotions and love, as I have seen over and over again in Cuba was well demonstrated here.

William arrives from Mytikla, waits and encounters the hungry girls, who have no money and were not able to buy anything during their bus journey, over not so comfortable roads, for those who know Burmese roads.

Where is Aung Khant?

They had no telephone numbers to call, no addresses to search for, that is when Tin Tin Aye chirped in; if we take a taxi to Saunchang Township, I will recognize the shop where we ate lunch and dinner with Aung Khant. A taxi consented and the entourage got in, the three pairs of eyes were hawkishly scrutinizing the surroundings, they recognized the township, they recognized the main road and within minutes they recognized the corner where once stood the restaurant.

It had closed and in its place was a video store. But the ever jolly, efficient William talked to the people around, at the tea shop and they located the address of the owners of the defunct restaurant, who are my friends. They climbed up the five stairs, and you can imagine the surprises on the faces of every one when the door opened and the girls could recognize PhyuPhyu and her mother...

Within minutes of their arrival, the phone rings, and it was me…

I was nearly in tears, at this magnificent gesture of humanity, this great gift these girls and their family and William had given me. Poor give more of themselves than the rich; I had learned that over and over again. I have been given very expensive presents by my patients, once a car, another time Cartier perfumes but none of those come anywhere near just one smile of these girls. Imagine yourself, going on a journey with no money to your name, to a town you have never visited which happens to be the biggest city in your country, with just the knowledge that someone with whom you had bonded three years ago would be or might be arriving in that city!

What TinTin Aye and Eh To Win and Pa pa Win has taught me... not just the humanity, as wide as the sea that they possess, the charity of giving of oneself, the greatest of all charities; the true sense of love and affection and loyalty, even for such tender and young minds, the desire to live the good path as they learned in their Buddhist prayers, and once again, the necessity to sacrifice oneself for the welfare of others..

We spent two days together. What do you want to eat? They all wanted to eat Chinese food, something denied to them in their village, and where do you want to go, unanimously the first answer was, Schwedagon pagoda... and a visit to the night market.

We were all together for two days. They had a comfortable room at Jade Imperial Hotel just a street down from Yuzana Garden Hotel. They were comfortable eating various types of food offered along the street, drinking tea or fruit juice or ice cream when they wanted to. They are all devout Buddhists and to them visiting Schwedagon Pagoda is a dream and worthy of merit. The two mothers were patient, the siblings behaved extremely well. None of this would have been possible if William was not there. He organized their return trip to Chaungtha as he was eager to go back to his wife and family in Mytikla, but he left only a couple of hours before the departure of the girls, who by now were laden down with their purchases.

I was travelling to Yangon with a most appropriate person, a close friend from Malaysia whose heart is as generous as these girls, but in a different direction and it was nice to see the bonding of a humanitarian accountant from KL with those of the hat vendors of Chaungtha Beach...

We had many other appointments: visiting Hwa Shin Jewelry store in Bogyoke Market; visiting my Indian moslem family friends whose children Usman and Aisha and Hazana have become my friends; meeting the doctor, who turned out to be a very kind person; dinner with Su Yee; and nostalgic visit to the House of memories of the Bengali Teak merchant, to retrace the steps of my father. I managed to do all these and a visit to the Botataung Pagoda and the Rangoon river side for sunset...  I was a little disappointed when I arrived just before Shabbat at the Synagogue at the 26th street to find it closed and shuttered…

That possibly was the only disappointment of this trip to Yangon, my 13th or 15th, who keeps count on emotions that outpours like the lava, thick and glutinous and abundant, of Mona Kea (Hawaii).. This was a truly uplifting experience, a spiritual one, given to me my three little girls of the Chaungtha beach. During the month of May just before the monsoons arrived in Myanmar...

vendredi 15 mai 2009

Magical Days in Malaysia.. becoming my third Home







Meeting with Remarkable People

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Yangon/Rangoon, Myanmar/Burma

This was a short visit: A Friendship visit, with the possibility of meeting up with a professor of Diabetes in Yangon (which by the way did not happen)... so a strictly cultural/anthropological/emotional tour of my favourite parts of Asia...

Mun Ching Yong, a true humanitarian in an accountant’s work clothes. Generous to a fault, my stay in Malaysia wouldn’t be the same without her help, her organization and her choices of restaurants, and skillful management of time to meet so many people, all of them demanded your intellectual and emotional attention.

Then there is sweet Man Lee, who is emerging from the cocoon blossoming into a flower. So sweet that I have decided to adopt her as my sister in law, a special bond indeed! As she said goodbye to me, she held back her choking and said... will truly miss you, lah!

Abid is energetic, artistic, in charge of Promotions at Astro. Worldly (his brother is with the World Bank at DC) (educated in Australia as well as India), erudite and open hearted. Heir to the Awadhi cuisine of Lucknow, he treated on two occasions to some of the best “north Indian” meals that I have ever tasted in my life. He does not come alone... he has a very charming wife, a Bengali to the core, true to the tradition of Binkim Chandra Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray, this effusive Bengali is a pleasure to  spend time with. Elaborately read and with wide interests, I look forward to welcome her and her husband to Cuba next year.

Brijesh, in charge of production at Astro of Dramas, is a thinking machine, whose quiet exterior is calm and at times deceiving. A self described half Gujerati Buddhist; an evening spent with him is effervescent and rejuvenating. Felt much closer to him after this second encounter with him.

Ho at 24 had become the President of Malaysian Mahler Society and was instrumental in organizing a festival of Mahler’s music. He is so complimented by his unassuming but incisive wife Kit; these two are true Malaysian Gems. He has a list of 100 of his favourite movies, and I dare you, to find anyone the length and breadth of Malaysia with such profound knowledge of movies as Ho and Kit. A champion Go player, a classical music aficionado and a gentleman to boot, I consider both Ho and Kit to be close friends.

Malaysia as a country has gotten very bad press, mainly because of its exploitation of land, corruption, lack of sensibility to other minority religions and peoples and association with Moslem terrorist groups. Anyone who has visited Malaysia for more than five minutes would realize that the Malaysia portrayed in the western press is nowhere near the truth. I had the pleasure of meeting a Diplomat from Malaysian Services, of whom I have written in another blog: The Humble Man from Pahang. I appreciate his openness and understanding of Cuba which he has visited twice and his explanations of the intricacies of the politico social systems of Malaysia for which I was grateful. It was MunChing who set me straight; she was the first Malaysian to explain, to this outsider who loves Malaysia, the intricacies of the system and the “Malaysian model” with its share of erratic and eccentric people. I owe to her, my respect for all the Malaysians and the system which is slowly changing to fit in with the progressive world.

If I were to see Alvin, an advocate and his lawyer wife Tanya and their three beautiful girls (the sheer beauty of a garden of butterflies in their eyes) in Europe, I would never think that they are Malaysians or even less that they are of Malayalee origin. (You can be Keralite easily but not a Malayalee that easily, someone had reminded me in Cochin once). Portuguese, Dutch blood in her veins, Alvin certainly has some admixture (he reminded me so much of some of my friends from Trinidad), but they are Truly Malaysian, truly Asian… educated, read and socially participatory, their house reflecting their aesthetic capacities... for me an evening spent with them at their house, with a nouvelle malasienne cuisine indienne.. Mild tasting curries with multiple flavours... a sheer delight indeed.  It would be my pleasure to play host to them and the three butterflies of theirs in Paris, sometime in the future…

All these multiple encounters had happened in just five days, in between lunches and dinners with friends and social companions. Worth mentioning is Balfour Ross and his wife of 43 years (who is a Thursday Island Malay), I had visited them twice in TI, while I was a junior doctor in Australia... somehow or other over the long absence our memories were kept fresh and now they live in Kuala Trengannu and I have the pleasure of their company twice in a year now.. And during my next visit to Malaysia, I certainly would visit them in KT. A perfectly charming couple, mild mannered, kind and understanding. The epithet Beautiful people should be applied to a couple like BJ and June, not to the shallow, long legged beauties and their metro sexual compatriots.

I am a great fan of Roti Canai and Teh Tahrek... perhaps it is the common genetic origin these foods and I share... and in Seri Kembangan, I found the right place with the right touch… Maulana Plaza  ... and add to this delightful and extremely inexpensive food… multiple indo Malaysian dishes…the greater pleasure is to meet the manager, Mr Soleiman, a native of Tanjore in South India, Tamoul speaking and Malay  proficient.. And truly friendly. We somehow manage to communicate and his smile and his welcome is something I look forward to, during my stays in KL...

On the day of my departure to Paris from KL, something close to my heart, reminding me the greatest emotions of my adopted country, Cuba…I spent two hours chatting with Ms O, Consular Officer and later with HE Mr. A, the ambassador from the Republic of Cuba to Malaysia. Paying a visit to the Embassy people in different parts of the world (I visit only Cuban embassies!)... is my way of saying thanks to that wonderfully HUMAN country and for the mountains of affections bestowed upon me and cleaning of any selfish dirt painted on my heart during the years of stay in the United States or England... the moveable feast that is Cuba… I was so happy to hear that Cuba, mi isla Rica, is educating the first group of Malaysian Medical Students who are adjusting well and in their words, are speaking excellent Spanish after their year of immersion in Spanish.  I look forward to meet these Malaysian students in Cuba... it would be a double pleasure…

Dear Friends, whoever reads this blog, which ever part of the world you live in, this is what happened to me in just five days in KL... capital of Malaysia...diamonds that shine, roses that are fragrant, human beings with a heart that is cavernous and accommodating… Like the American Indians have taught me, during moments like these, I thank the Spirits, for bringing all these people on to my path...

The food is excellent, in addition to the above...

Will write about the three days spent in Yangon, an emotional journey of extreme heights... in another blog

mercredi 6 mai 2009

Indulgences in Kuala Lumpur..



Facial at KLCC, KL, Malaisie..


One of the sheer pleasures of visiting KL (this is my fourth visit in one year, a lot considering I live 12 000 km away!)..is to be able to arrange sheer hedonistic pleasures for the body..

I am used to having Facials done in Paris, at Institut Scandinave d’Esthetique at Neuilly and I enjoy them whenever I can organize that. This one at Guinot at KLCC ( my second time there ) was special in that It was one of those very long sessions.. nearly 2 ½ hours in length.. which included facials of various types and then waxing using silk threads.. as well as firming of the face.. The Malay lady owner of the boutique was patient and gentle and in Malaysia the facial includes a massage of your neck which I really appreciated.. She was trained at the Guinot HQ in Paris…it was good to be reminded of Paris  a little bit.

A Cut Above is a salon in Bangsar Village II frequented by expatriates as well as Malaysians for their pedicure, manicure and hair dressings needs. This is the third time I am there and I had specially requested the manicurist GS, who in my opinion is the best Pedicurist. She would put to shame those petite Vietnamese girls who pretend to be professionals now scattered in small nail stores from Ottumwa to Ft Lauderdale!

The beauty of this place is that while GS attends to my feet, if you wish someone can attend to your hands. But I preferred the services of GS and during the two hours I was there.. from the beginning to end, she was with me, moving form one location to another, waiting patiently while hair was being shampooed and gotten ready for a cut.. The hair cut was by Fei Wen and it was good and quick and she was still attending to my finger nails when he was finishing his cut. Everything was done in a very pleasant, non cluttered way.. I enjoyed the two hours of pampering today.. during this very busy visit to KL…

The Humble Man from Pahang


The Humble Man from Pahang

The reason I came across this wonderful Malaysian Man was that he had been twice to Cuba on behalf of his government and this gave me an opportunity to learn what does a Malaysian think of cuba, its culture and its people, since the majority of those interested have only a second hand experience of the reality of Cuba.

He had grown up in a small town in Pahang and had cherished his childhood days and he is locally educated (didn’t go off to Australia or UK or USA to study). After 28 years of employment, he is a senior member of his department and as he said:  Every day I look forward to going to work. That summed up this gentle man for me.

Foreigners, especially those with some hidden agenda who go to Cuba, often focus on the negative aspects of life as perceived by them. One great example is the fact that Cubans are paid salaries which have local equivalence but do not have international equivalence. In a country where Health, Education and many of the social reforms are FULLY subsidized by the government, the salaries will not be a huge amount like in many of the capitalist countries. And of course,  when it comes to corruption, Cubans can teach a lesson or two to the other developing countries… how to avoid it.

His point was just that.. His translator, as is the policy of the government, is paid in Cuban Pesos while his employer pays into the government funds in Foreign currency. But what impressed this Malaysian gentleman was that at the end of the trip, after the translator had spent three full days with him in Havana, the reaction of the translator, when offered a tip of 100 usd, according to the protocol at that time in the country he was stationed at.

I am sorry, the translator begged him, that is too much of a present for me. I have done only what I was supposed to do. To me the greatest satisfaction is that you are satisfied with my work and that I had a chance to improve my self and get to know a little bit more about your country. But if you wish to still give me a present, 10 usd would be more appropriate.

The humble man from Pahang was very impressed, living in a world of corporate and individual greed, it was welcome relief to his soft heart to hear about the common good.

For a poor country, Cuba does so much more for its people and also the fact that it educates so many students from poor countries. This generosity of spirit which is lacking in countries of this region was impressive to him and also the level of education impressed him and the quality of people he had met, who all spoke well and were very aware of the world. Even a poor country like Cuba had something to offer Malaysia, which in this instance was Biotechnology..

They are without much capitalist luxuries, but they are the happiest people I have seen, he continued. It is amazing how prized is the aspect of relationship and friendship among them.

I am sitting here at the Noodle Bar of the Hilton Hotel in KL and beaming to myself, to hear such favourable explanations about the country that I adore, the country which taught me to express myself with all the decency of a human being.

He touched upon something which is very close to my heart as a Cultural Anthropologist… Cuban solidarity and the value we place on Relationships.

In the west, ( he lived 5 years in London and 10 years in New York, the latter he preferred to the former), in the business and other dealings, the order  of thought is:

1.     Logistics.  How to get things done.

2.     Logic.  The reasons for getting things done

3.     Relationships.  The human factor of the interaction

In the East, in the true tradition he had grown up under, in business dealings, the order is reversed

1.     Relationship is given precedence

2.     Logistics then comes in

3.     Then comes the logics of that transaction

He, a humble man from the backwaters of Pahang, but international in his thinking but Malaysian to the core in his heart, could understand the humble nature of the Cubans in government and otherwise and the importance they placed on relationships between people and governments before the logics of transactions, and the socialist thinking of Fidel and other leaders of not placing money as the sole and the most important aspect of ones life.

Ernesto Altschuler, a Cuban Jew of Polish origin and whose father was one of the original founders of the Cuban Communist Party, on my arrival to teach at the University of Havana, told me..

If you are only interested in yourself, how to get ahead and amass things for yourself, I recommend that you go to the USA where those ideals would be well rewarded for a man with your education.

But if you are interested in the welfare of the other person, if you are interested in the human aspects of every day emotions and in the great Cuban concept of Solidarity, you have come to Paradise, my friend..

He was so correct. My years in Baracoa and Havana, after my years in Melbourne (a city I adore), London( a city I admire) and Miami (close to my heart) turned out to be such a cleansing experience, a moveable feast and paradoxically enough, some of the best years in my life.. May it continue…

For those who may not know, Cuba educates close to 20 000 poor students from every single country in Latin America including Argentina and Bresil, and all parts of Africa. Fidel himself once said.. Cuba is part African and part Spanish and wholly Cuban.. and each of the responsibilities have to be met.. Even after Fidel is long gone, thousands of grateful patients and students all over the world would be grateful to him and the Cuban people for educating their doctors

Even the lunch was just mediocre, I did not mind it this time, wallowing in the praise of the country that I adore, a cut above the usual crap about low salaries, lack of transportation.. but not a comprehensive understanding of the life in the island…. By people who live in countries known for their greed and selfishness..

I rather take Cuba… and be Malaysia whenever I can.. You can have your glamour and glitter..

Despite my objections, this humble man from Pahang, paid the bill and gave me a clear understanding of the changes occurring in this society. A good news indeed for me, to bring some of the Cuban solidarity to the poor people without much medical help in the east coast of this lovely country.

A cup of coffee ( I am sure it will be Cuban) with the Cuban Ambassador to Malaysia tomorrow.. ( an old friend of my Cuban mother..)

Noodle Bar or Nudle Bar?


Is it Noodle Bar or Nudle Bar?

Fusion Cuisine or is it blind mimicry? How do cuisines influence each other? Do the imperialists: whether georgraphic or cultural impose their cuisine upon others or they absorb the local cuisine into their own?

In the westernizing developing countries, usually at a rapid rate and Malaysia is a very good example, there is a trend in “fusion” cuisine in which to blend some flavours which are not their own, by chefs or more like cooks who do not have cultural lived in experience in the cuisines they are experimenting with.

One such example was the Noodle Bar. It was in the Hilton Hotel, rather fancy hotel with an enormous entrance hall and a spacious and bright noodle bar, where one could select from a small menu of noodles..

But in the end it is all basically Malaysian.. it is like the fancy dress ball of the Noodles..

Today I was able to see

Spinach and ostrich noodle, green in colour, congealed .

Udon, that simple meal of the Japanese lunch, now dressed in a broth with flavours of Malaysia

Glass Noodle with chicken

 

They looked a little different from one another, but the flavours were not all that different. One thing unappetizing was the larger portion size.. I would have been quite happy with half the size..

 

But these hotels are in prime locations, and they overlook wonderful scenes and that is the prime reason we would choose these places for conversations and discussions.

One such discussion on this lunch was with the Humble Man from Pahang…


lundi 4 mai 2009

Ah Minha Terra Cognita.. First Full Day in Malaisie..



Ah Minha Terra Cognita…

If you can manage your sleep, you can enjoy your life even more.. Who sleeps more per day do you think? The French or the Japanese? Who takes longer time consuming Food, The French or the  Mexicans?

The French do it, do it with style and is considered jealously to be the most stylish nation on earth.. add to that Great Food and time to eat it.. and then relax.. viola, c’est la Vie…

Where does Malaysia fit in? People work hard here since there is no choice since the Society does not guarantee you much social/medical benefits, one has to constantly worry about that aspect of ones life and certainly the educational system is uneven and thousands of able Malaysians go away to Australia and other countries for further education never to come back, oh what a loss for Malaysia..

Like in every other country in the world, there is a small crème de la crème here.. and I am so fortunate enough to meet them.. and forge friendships with them in the short period of my intense association with Malaysia… which began in the earnest just about 13 months ago..

Who are the stars of today in my skies?

My Good Friend and confidante, without doubt my closest friend in Asia, Munchy Moon

When someone succeeds in India at a young age, it has more to do with talent than connection and one such person now donating his aesthetic talent to this land of immigrants is Abid, the Head of Promotions at Astro Entertainment.

ManLee is so sweet that I have recruited her to be my sister in law. She arrived from her short holiday in Taiwan, and with some very thoughtful gifts: a little container for business cards; a very nice notebook to keep journals while travelling; post cards to share with friends… and she has excellent taste in foods and I will give you what she ordered for dinner tonight at a restaurant nearby..

Inveterate in his deep thoughts , Ho and his very complimentary wife, Kit who has become close to my heart. A dinner with them tonight is a panoply of touching various aspects of our intellectual world.. ha to find this in company of delicious Chinese food selected by my sweet sister in law..

Abid was in charge of a promo shoot with a well known Hong Kong Chinese  actor, and Abid had invited us and it was an introduction into another world. Walking into the Astro HQ, I felt elated, the truly multicultural aspects of the ambience and the energy which was present. Simon Yam seemed a patient man and the crew filming him were very young, twenty somethings and dynamic… of course led by Abid..

Lunch courtesy of Astro…chicken curry. Nasih puteh. Green veggies..

Dinner at Restoran Hee Lai Ton, Seri Kembangan, Selangor, Malasia.

Indian Style Prawn… very tasty

Chef’s master chicken stock vegetable cum soup

Friend Brinjal

Steamed and sauted chicken

The evening talking to Ho and Kit, about films and books, our thoughts about the future of an even Malaysia and our individual roles in it..under the concerned eyes of Munchy and ManLee.. the time went so quickly.. food savoured and as usual we were the last ones to leave the restaurant…

Ha! It is an absolute delight to be back in Malaysia once again…in 2006, began my slow loss of Cuba, the country which is tattooed into my heart… Paris arrived and in 2007 it was Good Bye to Birmanie/Myanmar and in 2008, Malaysia arrived with such an emotional and intellectual bang..

Normally you are not thinking of Intellectual Life and Malaysia in the same breath ( unlike India, where you can breathe the intellectual ambience..) but to me, thanks to Munchy Moon, my association with Malaysia has been a great feast… literally of the food and the mind as well..

Was it Gracilosa de la Inca Vega who said.. La Vida es un sueno.. Life is just a dream?

A Mi Tierra Natal: Dia 1 Malasia.






Day 1 of a trip to Asia

In fact it was more than 24 hours, on this first day of the trip, to get to KL from Paris. I left Paris at 10 45 am ie 16 45 at KL on 2 May 2009 and I reached KL at 0600 am on 4th May 2009..nearly 38 hours. This flight normally takes, if on a direct Malaysian Airlines Flight from CDG to KUL. But my flights had to be re routed through Bangalore and Madras.. due to some schedule changes in Air France. I flew Air France, a comfortable 9 hour flight to Bangalore arriving there on the dot at midnight. The new airport is shiny and without much convenience but at least it is quiet, which is a rare thing in India. I could go to the Domestic counter at 5 am, having spent two hours on courtesy wi fi of Bangalore airport. 260 inr is the fee for the privilege of using the domestic terminal, which are being charged to all domestic passengers, yet another levy on the poor paying passenger, no wonder how the major Indian Airlines: Indian, Jet and Kingfisher are all in great financial strife! The Kingfisher flight to Madras was mostly empty.

Arrived at Madras Airport at 7 am on Sunday 3rd. Immediately accosted by people who want to suggest hotels to you, but I had already something in mind. I wanted to sleep and rest and it would be better to find a hotel near the airport, which I did. Trident Hotel just five minutes from the airport. 6000 INR plus 1200 INR in taxes.. can check in at 8 am and I can check out at about 8 pm (could have stayed longer if I wanted, but I had a flight to catch)..closed the curtains, switched off the lights and off to the slumber land, tired body succumbing easily to sleep.

With the exception of slight disturbances, slept until 5 15 and wrote some emails to friends and after yet another shower, at 8 30 pm was at the Airport (air conditioned car transfer included in the price). At the tea stand, spent 5 inr (10 cents usd for a cup of cardamom tea). The check in process at the Malaysian Airlines counters was agonizingly slow but the agent was pleasant enough and was given a good seat, but nothing could compare to the luxury of Air France. I was glad I was flying Malaysian Airlines rather than Air India Express (notorious for its tardiness). At the Duty Free store, was surprised to find Sparkling Wine from Jacobs Creek in Australia at 6 usd per bottle, so bought two. Was happy to buy the newly published autobiography of Zubin Mehta. At the 24 hour pharmacy I was able to stock up on some of the medications requested by friends in the USA. When I left India, I had no Indian currency left with me, normally a few hundred rupees are left over.. I wonder what is the symbolism of that?

A very nice dinner served at 1 am local time in fact 4 am Kuala Lumpur time. I had a tasty chicken curry with basmati rice, two glasses of a mediocre red wine.. since I had not eaten anything substantial during my 24 hours in India, it was welcome relief.. and the food quality was good.

As expected, at 6 am the Malaysian airlines Airbus 330 arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I was one of the first through the door and was the first in line in front of a sleepy immigration agent who was wearing a face mask, but who did not ask any questions about swine flu or where I had been. In Bangalore, rows of tables had been set up and a doctor in each of the tables, questioned the incoming passengers especially if they were coming from Mexico, USA or Canada.

You were born in Malacca? Says the friendly immigration officer.

Yes, so I deserve a special treatment and he smiles and within thirty seconds I had cleared the Immigration and within a few minutes my bag arrives and no further checks and I am on the Malaysian soil.. ready for my teh tahrek and roti canai..