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samedi 28 août 2010

Excess in the Land of Plenty

Arriving soon after a visit to Myanmar, two weeks ago I was in Yangon, the food served at the American Resto in Miami, Bahamas Breeze, gives me a great sensation of wonder.. as if I am seeing a manufactured monument to something or other, in this case perhaps to the Excess of this society. You notice that the air conditioning is colder, and is left on in the houses and hotel rooms, cars all seems to be new, people seem to be poet neruda has a line in one of his poems.. I have never seen people so happy...
The portion sizes were gargantuan! even an appetizer was enough a meal for two.. I had Mahi Mahi ( I wonder where it came from? from a farm?) well done with almond crust... but it was big even for two people! The food was tasty indeed, tostones were, yes you guessed it, were twice the size, with heaps of vegetables and cheese melted on top of it.. I was so surprised and felt insulted that they didnt serve cuban coffee, we were at a neighbourhood which is fairly cuban, and the staff was mainly cuban.. even the waiter exclaimed.. I dont see why they dont serve Cafe Cubano.. But we have jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee.. but let me tell you something, most of the people in our table have good knowledge of Jamaica and its coffee and the coffee served at Bahamas Breeze certainly was not the true Blue Mountain Coffee.. it tasted more like the blend that they sell at supermarkets...
so a nice introduction to life in America.. and one thing is for sure, in not many countries can a meal like this be partaken with such good, openhearted, welcoming, friendly people..

dimanche 22 août 2010


I felt that I may not have another chance to visit Myanmar/Burma in the near future, so took this chance to add Burma/Myanmar to my short trip to Malaysia. My best friend had just arrived from the La La Land (attending ashrams with the rest of the DropOuts! From the west.. I am just joking..) and this was a thanksgiving visit for her, for the wonderful time she had in India.
Air Asia has begun daily services to Yangon and it is a blessing indeed. The flight is a sad commentary on the economic plight of SEAsia. Most of the passengers were young able bodied men hired to do physical work (too demeaning for the Chinese and Malays these days) and they are either going home on holidays or at the end of the contract. There is no atmosphere of gaiety but a somber one, reflecting the coolie nature of these flights.
Kyaw is a new friend and he didn't have to meet us at Mingaladon Airport but there he was and he had already organized a taxi which would be with us for the entire length of our stay in Burma. San, the taxi driver turned out to be a good human being and was very helpful for the successful outcome of this mission.
I had only one thing in mind. I have been trying in vain to get in touch with EiTho, PaPa Win and Tin Tin Aye, my friends from Chaungtha Beach.I tried to call Win Htay who had a restaurant called William at the beach there, I requested many of my Yangon friends to call his handphone number, but was not able to get hold of him and thus no news of the girls. Their fearlessness is chronicled in one of my blogs as a background.
It is Monsoon time in Burma. Every thing has that wet and moody look to it. The River Ayerawarry had become an ocean rather than a river and every thing in its path was under water: homes trees and indistinguishable objects poking out of water. When you go out of Yangon, on both sides of the road as far as the eyes can see, it is lagoons of water. People were using kayaks, to go about their daily activities in their farms which were also under water. The rain fell without a stop. This is not a good time to come to Burma as a tourist but that was not the objective. The Objective was to find the girls and once again try to fulfill their dreams about their future.
The morning was spent at Bogyoke market , filling the bags up with gifts for people across the world. Myanmar has god quality Jade and Ruby and Saphires and I have shopped at the same shop HWA SHIN at the market and my friend Ei Khine Myat has always been helpul. A bargain is less important than a friendship and I enjoy the time spent looking for various objects mainly for women friends in faraway places. This time I wanted to get a small blood pigeon ruby for a little American Indian girl called Ruby, an UmonHon Indian.
It was noon time when we could pull out of Yangon. The rain is falling without a stop and the traffic is anything is more congested than ever. It seemed a long time before we could get out of the din of Yangon and soon it was just drowned countryside and hot and humid air and large drops of rain on the clouded windshield of the car with a lame wiper trying to do its best.
The driver, San, who was to become a good friend by the end of the trip, was silent and concentrating on the road, wet and with a multitudes of transportation of various velocities. Soon we crossed the large bridge over the River Ayerawarry and stopped at the very same roadside restaurant that I had stopped on my previous visits. The Myanmar Style Chinese food was nothing special and the place had a faded look to it. After fortifying outselves with Myanmar Tea, Le Paye, we were off once again. Four hours after leaving Yangon we were on the outskirts of Pathein and from here the road gets worse. We didn't go into Pathein, which was to come later, as an unplanned detour, but headed straight to Chaungtha and reached the village as the sun had dipped over the horizon.
No street lamps, wet air, puddles of water, all roads in the village are dirt roads now in an amalgam of mud and water.
We had bought two torch lights in one of the stores along the way for this anticipated darkness engulfing us. The driver said it would be better for us to locate the girls in the morning, but my heart was too impatient. I had come from Paris just to meet up with the girls.. nearly three days of travelling and I couldn't wait any longer. We had a photo of the girls taken on their last visit to Yangon and we showed it to many people, who all said, their faces are familiar but we don't know where they live. San, the driver came in very handy. He questioned a large number of people and in the end we entered a house near the Monastery ( I knew they lived near the monastery) and the woman lead us to the house of Eitho.. Within minutes this slender girl of inexhaustible affection (who must have been my daughter in a previous life and now we are reunited in this life, San said giving us a Boudhiste explanation), came running out and was sobbing uncontrollably. It was too difficult to find out way to the other homes, as the rain was falling non stop but did manage to find the parents of another girl. We made a time for reunion at 10 am next morning at the beach in front of Lai Lai Hotel where we would be staying.

I knew that they would be there on time. We had finished our breakfast by the sea, watching the ocean slowly touching the sands of this shore of Andaman Sea. Pa Pa Win and Ei Tho and their families were ready, in crisp clothes and fresh thanaka on their faces. Pa Pa had a longyi as a gift for me. There was so much excitement all around . we walked hand in hand along the beach, deserted of tourists and only an occasional vendors with curious stares. San the driver owner of the RubyLand Gueset House (Foreigners can stay for 5 usd he assured me, but it is mainly for Myanmar guests, an entire family staying in one room) was also on the beach. We exchanged words and greetings and San volunteered to prepare the dinner: fish and shrimp and vegetables, at his guest house, for the girls and their families, 12 people in all. I also made a time when we could talk to the girls alone regarding their dreams of a better future, rather than spending their lives selling hats or fried shrimp and fish on the beach.
Tin Tin Aye was missing, and the tragic story of a cutlrue of poverty emerges here. She was the youngest of the three but most impish and outgoing. A young man barely twenty who worked at some menial job along the beach had taken an interest in her and within months they were married (yes married!) and she had moved to Pathein. Her Karma, said San.
So we had the two girls with whom we wanted to talk without any input from the parents. The parents on previous occasions didn't want these girls to study because these girls were their income, however meager, from the tourists at the beach. The girls sold hand made hats at 200 kyats each and since the raw materials were free and they could make a few in the morning and sell them , go home for lunch and then make some more for the evening. They could sell 10 to 20 a day depending upon the number of tourists from Yangon, a substantial amount, more than what their parents could bring in as farmers..
Pa Pa has a talent to draw and even artists who had visited Chaungtha beach had commented on it. But where is she to learn ? really Yangon , which at the moment is not a possibility. She tried last year to go to Bogalay where she has a sister and tried to apprentice herself to an artist but it ended up costing all her life savings and didn't come to much because of the eccentricity of the artist.
Eitho on the other hand, the slender girl of inexhaustible nostalgia, had her mind set up on becoming a Professional Tailor, a very respectable profession in Myanmar. As luck would have it, San informed us that his wife, Daw San Dar herself was a professional tailor and he had some knowledge about the infrastructure of this profession in Burma.
Eitho wanted to learn to be a tailor. She already knew the teacher. PaPa wants to continue with a career in art and design but the best way to get there oncea gain would be to become a professional tailor and then design clothes for the Burmese. Despite poverty of many of the Burmese,one notices that they are better dressed and neat and clean than many of the western tourists who come to their country. I have also noticed this in Cuba where Cubans found it distasteful that the westerners who can afford to shower, buy soaps and good clothes don't bother to do so while visiting Cuba. No wonder the Vietnamese very politely call the western tourists to their country, The Smelly Ones.
We trooped off to the home of the teacher (zeyama in Burmese), papa win holding an umbrella over my head. We also had bought an umbrella and rain coats in Yangon anticipating this downpour. The shoes from the west were exchanged for Chinese made thongs.
Through the mud and puddles and passed by the monastery, where we dropped in to say Hello to the young abbot who received us kindly and we prayed for a good future for these two children. I had met him on two other occasions and he is of some repute since he travels to various other monasteries to teach.
Zeyama lived in a house a bit better off by the local standards. Two or three machines, two Chinese and one Singer were standing like sentinels at the entrance. This kind woman, promised to take on Ei Tho as a student, ad libitum, she can come and learn. And later on help zeyama with her work.
But she would need a machine for herself and a scissors and atape and clothes to practise on . At the end of the course, which is to take six months she can set herself up in the village as a tailor, since the zeyama felt that in six months EiTho could be proficient.
PaPa had been thinking about her future too. She gave me a long letter written the night before , in Burmese, which San translated for me. It detailed the difficulties of studying art and design at the moment and her desire to entire her dream through dress design and the most feasible option was also to become a professional tailor. We went back to the zeyama since there were not many teachers for this art in this small village and she kindly agreed to take on PaPa win as well as a student. Once again , a machine and the accoutrements.
One of the reasons, any form of education in Myanmar is out of the reach of the poor is the cost associated with it. One has to pay “presents” to teachers even in government schools in Yangon and the Medical School in Yangon is nototorious for its teachers not showing for lectures but giving them at their homes for a fee, a fat fee by Burmese standards. The tuition fee.
In this poor village, the six-month tuition fee to become a tailor would eat up a major portion of the income of a family. We had come, my closest friend in all of Asia and I, anticipating some expenses but even we were surprised at the high proportion of the fees as compared to the income. But as a tailor, the girls would be guaranteed a profession, a life away from the searing heat of subservient service to the Burmese and foreign tourists and then as talents would permit them go beyond that.
Zeyama informed us that there are sewing machines that can be bought at Pathein. Prices again beyond the dreams of an average family anywhere in Burma, half a years salary of an office worker or more. But we were determined to go ahead with the dreams of these two girls who might have been our children in a past life, as San explained to our amusement.
We visited the homes of these girls, father at EiTho climbed up a tree to bring down some fresh coconuts. aT the home of PaPa she had rushed off to get some Burmese sweets from the shop and we viewed with wonder the talent lay hidden in this outpost of Burma. This girl can draw, especially portraits and hopefully something along the lines where the dreams and talents would meet would occur to both of them.
That night, to celebrate the jewish Shabbat, I lit the candles and said my prayers in Hebrew while the 12 burmese faces looked on with amusement and I prayed for the future of thee two girls from Chaungtha beach, and that a secure future be granted to them, one of dignity and self worth and a way out of the circle of poverty.
After an early breakfast looking at the waves and the sand island in the horizon and pokala island on the left, the two girls piled into the car and we said good bye to Chaungtha. It was a clear day, day heavy with clouds but without rain. On the way we saw the footsteps and fresh faeces of a wild elephant as well as a gentle tamed female elephant. After paying our respects to the elephant and the mahout we continued on our journey to Pathein. The other girl Tin Tin Aye was waiting there and her dress and hair style announced her new life style as a married woman of Pathein.

San was very helpful in negotiating the price of two sewing machines. We had asked the girls whether they wanted one of their brothers to accompany them to Pathein so that they can help with the machines, but the girls said emphatically NO, we will manage. The machines were bundled up and sent to the bus stop on the bici taxis while we tried to have a little snack at the Chinese café: le paye of course and a little bit of noodle. We looked at the watch, it was coming on to 11 am and we had to be at the airport by 4 pm in Yangon, no room for error here.
The girls were very happy. And promised that they would learn diligently. In return we promised to come back to visit before the next monsoon, before next May. In the meantime, because of our contact with San, who has a handphone, homephone as well as email, we will be kept informed of their progress. San who owns a guest house in Chaungtha tries to go there whenever the chance arises, and I am comforted with the thought of this lifeline of a communication connection.
It was time to say Good Bye, eyes welling up, all around, but this time around, there is no uncertainty of a promise only but something concrete has been done for the future of the girls.
Rain started falling heavily as we approached Yangon, but we made it still on time to check into the Air Asia Flight to KL that evening.
All sorts of departures, once again the flight was full of able bodied young Burmese men going on to Malaysia for jobs the locals do not wish to do. Once again the gloomy atmosphere, imagine how often this is repeated all throughout south east asia: flights to Singapore, japan, hongkong, Bangkok, KL.. from all the other parts of the impoverished south and south east asia. The saddest I still think, are the flights to and fro Dhaka in Bangladesh!
I felt very content, my desire to see the girls had come true and with the help of my best friend in Asia, we were able to at least do a little for the future .
San, from the beginning insisted, please don't give money to them, they would spend it quickly and there would be nothing left to show for the generous gift. It was an advice well worth taking.

vendredi 20 août 2010

C'est la Vie....

Does this man deserve a holiday?
People, who have known me for a while, still are not sure what is that I do, which takes me to exotic places on all parts of the world. So they content with thinking that I am addicted to tropical beaches and that I sit under the coconut trees drinking Rum. Partly true, but that is not the full picture.
When I was in school, I read about a doctor who had travelled to many countries, so I said to myself, I want to travel to 100 countries, no reason why I chose the number but easier to remember your target number.
In each of the areas of the world I have lived in, I would explore the surrounding region, thus while living in Australia, Australasia was my playground: Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Samoa, Aotearoa, and Tokelau, Nauru. When I came to Miami, one by one the Caribbean islands gobbled up my time. Student days in London were the time to venture into Africa. Back in Miami, Argentina, Brasil and Chile entered my life. So on and so forth, I have travelled to a few countries and many of them, Argentina, Vietnam, Japan, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Malaysia. More than ten times each. And there are three countries, which I have visited more than 100 times, details are not necessary.
I remember reading something, once again while at school. Life is a long holidays with intervals of work. At that time I couldn't figure out what was meant by that, since the idea of work was far from my head then. Many years later, working with American Indians, the significance of the saying was revealed. Roughly to have harmony in your life, you have to divide your life equally, between work 25 % Family 25 % Charity work for the welfare of others 25% and Spiritual Life 25 %. This is how you come into balance or at least try to come into balance.
So do I deserve a holiday?
Today is Friday 2oth August 2010. The last Friday night 13th August 2010 (I as a Jew always considered the number 13 to be a lucky number for us, since I think it is that day we escaped the Egyptian slave drivers?), to the curious stares of Bamar people from a remote village in Ayerawarry Division in Myanmar, I lit the candles and said the prayers in Hebrew. Tonight it will be in Paris.
In between the seven days and nights, I have been in Kuala Lumpur (two sumptuous meals, one at overseas restoran in the city, and another at Ha Lai Ton in the suburbs), a very comfortable long flight from KL to CDG via BKK and FRA. Hardly had any sleep on the night of arrival, the next morning I was on the Euro star to London, to say good bye to my sister and her husband, whom I had welcomed at the CDG terminal 1 just three weeks earlier. Arrived on a return Euro star. And today was the first day of rest…
But preparing for a little jaunt… a beachside holiday at the beach home of my sister in Miami.
So if you don't hear me for the next ten days, I am at the beach in Miami… stocking up on Whole Foods and some nice antipodean drop to wet my tonsils…
And the end of the few days, once again, I am off. Someone has given me a tee shirt from Peru as a gift but it is in KL! How can I do injustice to the gift by not going there personally to pick it up? Mekong Delta with its secrets are calling me, my dearest friend in HCMC may once again take me to a nice place to eat? A brief visit to Phnom Penh? And American Indians?
A huge wide smile and thanks to my best friend in Asia, who truly assisted me on this last trip to Myanmar; as always great help to facilitate my stay in KL… food, haircut, pedicure, facial… Yes, I have to look good to take care of my patients!

jeudi 19 août 2010

Nostalgia para Londres

I never realized how wonderful my life was in this greatest English speaking City in the world-as a student, first in Medicine and then second time in Cultural Anthropology.
It is as if nothing has changed outwardly but every thing has changed. I walk along the streets as familiar to me as they were during my student days, the streets are cleaner, the buildings crisp and shiny, the people definitely far friendlier ( I will give a cultural explanation for that later)
Took a bus ride along the memory lane for me--on the right the Oz embassy, on the left the bridge to the south bank, the Zim embassy, BBC house, South Africa House, National Gallery where i had spent hours as a student scrutinizing one room after another, the goiters on Rubens' paintings intrigued me at that time, Malaysia Tourism Office with a large Malaysian flag flying on top, Canada House.. How many times I have entered these various Houses!
I particularly remember, while I was studying Medicine here, protesting in front of the South African Embassy, looking at my watch, I told the fellow next to me, Do you mind holding my placard? I have a flight to catch to Australia...In the last year of my medical studies, I did five round trips between Melbourne, Australia and London. London reinforced my love for Australia, for I realized that the best of Australia had roots in this magnificent city, I am sure an aging Barry Humphries would agree..
MH via Koweit and Kuala lumpur to Australia
Qantas via Bombay and Perth
Many many long flights with multiple stops, those stops meant so little at that time, KL or Singpour didnt interest me, my interest was my destination, my home, Melbourne, Australia..
I arrived at CDG from KL yesterday and today I am in London, and I have never been happier with an arrival.. (except of course my beloved Cuba).
This city had given me so much knowledge, Physical Diagnosis taught by astute clinicians, a wonderful introduction to Medical Anthropology by Cecil Helman (Olav Ha Shalom), a teacher who later became a friend.
I live close by, these days. 2 h 24 minutes by Eurostar, after this visit you can be sure that you would see my face often at the Restos, Bookstores, Theatres at this most interesting English speaking city in the world.
I feel that this euphoria is a gift for the rain and the mud amidst the efforts to find the girls of Chaungtha Beach in Myanmar just this past week, and the successful bid to bring the future to them.
PS The friendliness of London must have to do with the complete integration of many of the immigrants from various ex colonies who are now solidly British with an added spice of their individual cultures. Today, the junior bank officer who helped me was from Birmingham but with a distant ancestral memory from the Sub Continent.. She was very pleasant and efficient... This is the New London for you. Bienvenidos/ Bem Vindo/Bienvennue/Welcome

mardi 17 août 2010

Where is Dr Aung Khant?

After this wonderful trip to KL and Myanmar, and a nice flight back to Paris from KL, I want to put down the days of love and affection and fearlessness of my two girls in Chaungtha Beach. As a back ground, I am putting here something i had written about our last encounter...This will give an idea how determined these girls are to improve their lives and those of their families..
We are just here to nurture them.. The following was published at

An Unusual Tale of Love in the time of Cyclones

Dr. Sudah Yehuda Kovesh Shaheb • January 7, 2010

Myanmar has 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 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 laborers 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 traveled 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…

samedi 14 août 2010

Oh Burma.. What a Wonderful People.. the Sweetest of all Asians

It is way past midnight, I have just arrived from Rangun or Yangon.. and i am so filled with the tendereness of this encounter.. The smiles come so easily to the Burmese and because of the social and economic situation of the country and the deep nature of their Buddhist beliefs, they are much closer to the origin of creation, unpolluted by the rapid economic growth that is affecting its neighbours.
I had gone to a small village six and half hours by car from Yangon, over roads which are not exactly worthy of the vehicles.. to look for three little girls i had known ever since i had started going to Burma... about ten years ago..
It is truly Love in the time of the Monsoons.. Heavy rains, flooded plains.. the river broadening itself into a great ocean swallowing every thing on its way... arrive after dark in a village with little electricity... somehow we manage to meet..
It was a cleansing of the heart.. to grab a little bit of innocence sawed away by the "progress" of other nations.
I am spoken to in Burmese and I am mistaken for a Burmese, which I wear it like a proud compliment. I dont mind being mistaken for a Burmese..
I wrote a story about the Hat Sellers of Chaungtha Beach in the travel book: From Myanmar with Love.. Now the small hat sellers are growing up, and I am there to make sure that a future is available to them, even if they live so far away.. with very little connection to the capital city of Rangoon let alone the rest of the world

mardi 10 août 2010

Good Bye.. to my favourite Part of Asia



It is a strange sensation going to a country, knowing that the flame of desire for that country had vanished, the eagerness with which you embraced the same country just a few months ago… will soon vanish into oblivion.

It all started with a dream

I have a sister who belongs to the Kikapu Tribe of Indians (Mexique). She called me soon after my return from my trip to Malaysia earlier this year, Feb 2010.

Dear Brother, do not travel to Malaysia, until I call and tell you. I can bet you that she wouldn't be able to place Malaysia on a map but she has heard about it from my travels, except that it is in Asia.

“I had a dream, it repeated itself three times the same night, it showed a round face of a woman in great distress, her face dropping into murky waters”

“Please don't go, don't fly in that direction until I tell you.”

I had flights booked on april 29th and then again I was supposed to give a presentation at the International Conference on Zheng He in Malacca in July 2010. Two trips had been planned! And a third to celebrate the birthday of my closest friend in Asia. This friend of mine, had been a good and generous friend of mine since a chance meeting at the Siem Reap Airport in January 2008.

I called MC and told her that I am cancelling my next trip to Malaysia because my Kikapu sister has had a bad dream. She had some conflicts at work, a responsible job as a section finance chief..” I am making up my mind, what to do next”,she replied.

Since our meeting in 2/2008, through some serendipitous connections with some excellent Indian Nationals had been made. Erudite, worldly, intellectual and well educated, these Indians were much different from the Malaysian Indians, most of whom were descended from the Coolies brought over for Labour a century earlier. Very rapidly, MC, a Chinese, became steeped in the Indian culture of the Northern India (Malaysian Indians are mostly of Tamoul ancestry).. Music, Dance and stage by stage into the deep culture.. Yoga, Meditation and Philosophy.

In February of this year, VY, a young Yoga instructor arrived for a few days of intense Yoga sessions for me, MC and her sister ML.

Back to my Kikapu sister.

“the face on that dream and the swirling dirty waters, meant that you shall keep away from your friend and Malaysia”

How did I make the connection of the face in the dream and MC?

Soon after the conversation with my sister, in fact within days, MC quit her well paying job and made plans for a Yoga Retreat, went to India for an indeterminate duration. She had dropped in to an Ashram near Trivandrum in South India.

She kept me informed faithfully, her companions, exceptional tales of adventures and mishaps and her increasing love for India. India is not an usual destination for me, nor it is a country that I have travelled much in ( I do have a good understanding of its history since the Vedic Times). I am sure many people have this conflict whether it is India or Lithuania, if you had ancestors who migrated out of them.

This magnetic attachment MC had for India was the beginning of a divergence in our paths. I had one more duty as a friend – a homage to the friendship we had enjoyed for two years. To be present, soon after her arrival back in KL, to make sure that this de-tribalization in India has not affected her adversely and finish her spiritual search with a trip to Burma, which will soothe any disturbances in her soul.

That is where I am headed today. Leaving BLR, just 36 hours after arriving , filling my stomach with excellent coastal seafood at The Coastal Junction Restaurant at IndiraNagar, shopping for little things India is famous for, Rajasthani delights for my friends in Cuba, coffee from Coorg, Tea from Munnar, Incense of multitudes of fragrances, books on Bhutan, Veda and The torah… stuffed to the gills, the handluggage I carried on my flight from Paris , now has to be checked in ( the Himalaya hair products would arouse curiosity at the Security screening?)

Hardly half full, Air Asia A320 speeds towards KL, as it does nightly, that village by the creek founded by itinerant Chinese merchants.

My heart races back to my home.

Where is that? Ah… that is the secret!

lundi 9 août 2010

Welcome to Kuala Lumpur

what better way to begin this trip to SE Asia than a visit to the Cut Above at Bangsar... the magician with the scissors, FeiWen and the BEST pedicurist in the world...GS