Friday, July 23, 2010

Problems, always problems

There's just no relenting by the forces of Murphy's Law. It turns out that the Foreign Affairs Officer at my previous school booked me for the wrong visa. This whole year I have been incorrectly and illegally working while on a 'student' residence permit. I have no idea how she even finagled this, but we're guessing she did so because the student residence permit might be cheaper, and she can just pocket the difference. Well, she seems to be out of town (or just not answering her phone, which would be just like her-eternal-laziness), and my visa runs out on the 31st of July. So even assuming that I don't get kicked out of China about one week from now, my travel plans for the month of August might have just gotten kicked in the teeth. I have to have my residence permit thing worked out so that I can take my passport with me while traveling in China (needed for checking in at almost all hotels and hostels--just the ones that aren't technically allowed to house foreigners will keep you off the books, and thus not need to see passports).


My Burmese Days (5): Pilgrims of the Golden Rock

My previous missive (over a month ago!) left us on the shoulder of a highway several hours north of Yangon. The time is about 3:00 AM. A large pig roots through darkness in the ditch below the highway. Several Burmese are seated with us on flimsy plastic stools. My plan is to flag down a bus heading to Kyaiktiyo (pronounced: jike-tee-o), the place of the holy, golden rock poised at the brink of a mountaintop. The fellows seated nearby have other suggestions. A pickup--much like the "jeepneys" of the Philippines--hurtles from the dark, and in we jump. Cold wind whistles through the interstice of our clothing, and we huddle with little old ladies, their baskets of fresh-picked roses ( the fragrance a presence as well), and a rack of gas tanks warning us not to smoke. An old woman sat smoking towards the back, sandals hanging off into oblivion. Forty minutes on, Kiera and I are passed on to another pickup like batons in a relay race. And we do race on, the dawn sneaking towards us as we do. Our new coach is laden with sugarcane, and my knees are scrunched up at eye level in order to accommodate it. Kiera is none too happy, either. A fourteen hour bus ride and then this? And I do not even know if this will be our final truck in the journey towards the golden rock. It isn't.

Day 8

Passed on again, an ancient lady--squished against Kiera--belches constantly and the surreal, serene pre-dawn blue infiltrates our muddle. No one speaks a word of English. Minority women, most likely Mon or Karen chatter on in their own languages, and the need for a bathroom break makes itself known at this least convenient of moments. I can't find the correct translation in my guidebook, and my garbled Burmese enlightens no one. We arrive in the village of Kinpu around 9 or 10 AM.

Kinpu is a quiet village resting at the base of the mountain ridge where the golden rock, Kyaiktiyo, perches. Jungle canopy shades the motley wooden assortment. The town is named for a arboreal seed pod that yields the natural shampoo that helps keep many a Burmese coiffure glossy and black. Oddly enough, the subject of hair brings us back to the object of our quest: Kyaiktiyo.

The golden rock was not always golden, one must guess, and neither did it always perch precariously on its aerie, gazing at the distant sea. The perfect balance of this cottage-sized rock upon the edge of the abyss is aided by the presence of one of Buddha's hairs somewhere beneath its bulk. And how did this wondrous rock get to where it is now? It was floated there, of course, on a flying ship captained by an alchemist prince of yore, from its origins in the depths of the ocean. No one seems to know exactly why the stone was brought from seabed to mountaintop, the logic lost to the mists of time. Now an object of pilgrimage, we see how the animist traditions live on within the folds of Burmese Buddhist tradition. Worshipers of the rock ascend the mountain and daub it in eternal layers of gold leaf, and where is Buddha to be found in all this fuss?

Regardless of the compromised theology behind it, I respected Kyaiktiyo. First, like all good pilgrimages, sweat and tears and a bit of sacrifice had brought us here. Fears and a little bit of fury. Through an all-night odyssey of cramped conveyances and a final, steep ascent, we had moved towards this lodestone. I'm still not sure if this stop on our journey through Myanmar felt predestined for Kiera, but for me it did. Ten years previous, I had sat in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, absorbed by photography and a description of Kyaiktiyo. Buddhist I may not be, but this had been an actual pilgrimage for me.

Marbled paving, heated by the afternoon sun and slick with the wax left by evening pilgrims, caps the final few hundred meters of ridge approaching the rock itself. Young monks in crimson robes stand beside us on the quieter, inland side of the plaza. Lands disputed by minority militias race away towards the Thai border. A helipad plasters a knob of ground closer below us. Tourists gravitate to the seaward side and its golden glint. A small pagoda rides the back of the rock like a barnacle on the shell of a sea turtle. Men are allowed across a short bridge that guards the rock itself. There they prostrate and wrestle little square tabs of sticky gold leaf onto the available surface of the Kyaiktiyo. Wisps of fugitive gold leaf flutter in the turbulent winds that wash across the face of the rock, and off into the abyss beyond it. Semi-detached bits curl in the wind like the fluff of a newborn chick. The hair and clothes of the pilgrims is speckled with wealth.

 A mere hop away, a terrace projects. Women are allowed to worship the rock from there, or from a desk that extends down the cliff face beneath the rock. God forbid the men behind and above should accidentally shift the rock with all their fervent daubing, down upon the bent heads of the women worshiping below.

I cross the bridge and tamp down some gold. On closer inspection, the surface within range of pilgrims' hands bulges and undulates with accumulation. The brilliance of the gold here is blackened with the grime of a million imploring fingers and the natural shampoo of a million bowed heads.

Day 9

Down the coast to Mawlamyine (Ma-lee-myen) where George Orwell was once stationed. We're in the long, thin tentacle of Myanmar that gropes its way south between Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Much of this region is off-limits to tourism, particularly in the mountainous territory inland. Bombings and incidents between the national army and armed minority militias are not unknown in these parts. That said, the trip is uneventful. A thousand palm trees nod assent in the drowsy tropical breeze. Kiera has never been to the ocean, and we hoped to find a beach where she can make that acquaintance. What we found, however, were reedy mudflats and a romantic city sleeping by the sea.

Approaching Mawlamyine, a great bridge crosses the mouth of the Salween River (now called the Thanlwin). Both north and south of the river, a ridge accompanies the highway and backdrops the city. Spines of numerous golden paya erupt from its backbone. The bridge crosses above Shampoo Island, so called due to the hair-washing rites that ancient royalty took part in. The city itself is decaying grandeur: teal mosques and high-peaked temples of teak are lost among ravenous, long-limbed banyans.

Arriving hungry, we set out to find what seafood delicacies were to be found. What we found, however, was a local marriage ceremony for a young ethnic Indian couple. Two of the guests (a Burmese and his ethnic Chinese wife) invited us upstairs from our chosen restaurant where we supped on caramel ice cream and met the happy couple. This was probably about the thousandth happy accident I've experienced while traveling. My advice? Forget cast-iron plans and let the accidents happen. Given the language gap, we could have easily refused to be beckoned upstairs.