Monday, June 30, 2014

Twilight Over Burma

Inge Sargent was six years old when the Nazi's first invaded her village. But even post-war Austria, years later, was hard to deal with. So when afforded the opportunity, Sargent moved to the United States to study in Colorado on a Fulbright scholarship.  It was there she met Sao Kya Seng, a Burmese mining engineer student. The two fell in love and married in 1953 at the home of a mutual friend.

Seven months later, they sailed to Burma. When nearing Yangon (formerly Rangoon) a parade of people lined the river awaiting the boat.

Sargent asked what was going on, but Sao didn't reply.

As they drew closer to the shore, a band began to play and a Welcome Home banner came into view.

She asked again with no reply given in return.

Once a welcome group entered little boats, throwing flowers into the water as they neared the ship, Sao finally said, "I have to tell you something."

"No, not now," she responded, "I don't want to miss the welcome."

"Please," he requested.

"No, no, no, later. Tell me later. I want to see what's happening."

"They're welcoming us," Sao blurted out.

Sargent looked at him and asked, "They welcome every mining engineer like that?"

"No, I'm their Prince," came his response.

"You're their what?"

"I'm the Prince of Hsipaw and you are my Princess."

"Oh, why didn't you tell me earlier," she remarked, "I would have worn a different dress!"

Sargent fell in love with her new homeland. She adopted the local dress and customs and learned to speak Burmese and Shan, the local language from the minority group with the same name. The Shan state, roughly the size of Connecticut, comprises the North Eastern portion of Myanmar.  Hsipaw residing in the heart of it.

the Shan palace in Hsipaw

The royal couple worked tirelessly to create equality amongst their people.  Sao, who's family reigned since 40AD, drew wealth from rice patties. After returning home, he gave the fields to the farmers carrying for them.  They were going to buy rice just like everybody else. Their fortune would come through mining - which was his reason for getting an education in the US.

Their time in democratic Burma was a happy one. The country was wealthy and literacy was high. And through their efforts, people were gaining an equal standing with one another.

Nine years and two children later, in 1962, the Burmese military overthrew the government in a coup d'etat. Sao was arrested and imprisoned - he never really was liked by the military, being a Prince of a minority people with a foreign wife, and democratic to boot. Sargent and her daughters were placed under house arrest, which lasted for two years. She spent them exhausting her resources in search of her husband and to know of his welfare.

Still unsure of his fate, she fled to Austria with her daughters and three suitcases. Sao, if he was alive, would find her there like they had discussed early on, should something happen to him.

But he never came. She knew he was dead. Documents, eyewitnesses, and everything else she had gathered told her so. The government just wouldn't admit it. To this day, 52 years later, they still won't. Sargent's daughters, who moved with her to the US not long after leaving Burma, still write letters to the Burmese government each year asking what happened to their father. They have never received a reply. Until they do, they won't step foot into the country. Sargent isn't allowed in, even if she wanted to.

Today, in Hsipaw, to tell their story is the wife of Sao's nephew, Mrs Fern (her Anglicized name).  They lived in the palace - a small colonial styled house - together, telling the history of their family until the military government grew unhappy. Sao's nephew, Mr. Donald, was arrested, held for four years and told upon his release that he could no longer speak to foreigners. Donald and Fern moved to Taunggyi to live until Fern couldn't stand it any longer and made her way back to Hsipaw. People had to know. So she is there, on and off, welcoming a revolving door of guests to tell the story of the Prince of Hsipaw and his Princess.

Mrs. Fern, with a picture of Sao and Sargent behind.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hsipaw, in pictures

From old fashioned post offices to $2 USD haircuts. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

chugging along...

I've been privy to many-a-train ride in my day but the most memorable, the most heart pounding, and easily the most enjoyable ride I have ever had the pleasure to experience was a short 7 hour journey between the tiny Burmese towns of Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw.

The former Chinese carriages, built for a different gauge than the tracks they currently move on, chug along the hilly countryside, past tiny villages, at a maximum of 40 kilometers (25 miles) an hour.

The carriages jolt and shake across the entire journey, causing passengers walking down the aisles to grapple for any solid object to keep them from losing their balance. The overly plush $6 US dollar first class seats rock back and forth, at times involuntarily ejecting its tenant into the seat in front of them.

The more stable wooden benches in the $2 USD ordinary class seating provides a more authentic experience with the opportunity to interact with the locals as your butt bounces along the hard surface.

It's inconceivable the consequences that would incur if the train sped along any faster before toppling onto its side.

But the slow chug is slowed even further, at a comfortable walking pace, to inch its way across the Goktiek viaduct. Built in 1901, the viaduct, which hovers over a 300 meter (985 foot) gorge, was the 2nd tallest in the world upon completion.  Since then, little maintenance has been done on its upkeep.

Thus, by crossing the viaduct, you potentially sign your life away with two different options:

A) the train could jump the tracks of its own volition, sending you plummeting to your imminent death.
B) the viaduct could collapse, causing the train to free fall 300 meters as it twists and turns, carriages banging against each other, with no better an ending than the first option.

But the views are worth the risk.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Pushing and Shoving

We were caught in a washing machine of people. As much as I towered over the Burmese, crowds of them still managed to lift me from the ground as they churned this way and that. Esther and I grabbed each other's hand and squeezed them together as tight as we could, afraid if we let go we'd be carried off in different directions, forever lost amongst the crowds.

We were three miles north of Pyin Oo Lwin, a tiny colonial town where the altitude is higher and the air a bit crisper. Our arrival occurred on a weekend when the sleepy hamlet came alive with visitors from all across the country to attend the culminating week-long lantern festival events, to which we joined along in frequenting.

Having stood far enough back in the expansive field to feel safe when the firework spitting, hot air balloon sized, Chinese lanterns were released into the night sky, the anticipation we held was shot down - the balloon being filled having collapsed to the ground before it was even off it. Instead of standing around waiting for the next one to inflate, we decided to take a wander around the market stalls.

Unbeknownst to us, everyone else decided to, too.

Having approached an intercross, we stopped to assess the stalls, trying to determine which route to wander down.

It happened in a millisecond. The crowd. They came running from all four directions, colliding in the center. Bodies slammed against me, crushing me in my spot. The noise from their loud voices accentuating the intensity of the situation.

"Claire!" Esther yelled as she was being carried away.

"Grab my hand!" I yelled back as I threw my left hand towards her while my body was being pulled to the right.

We held tight, yet our hands still slipped until only our fingertips were linked. And then even they were broken apart.

It couldn't have been more than 30 seconds, but it felt like ages. Stories of prior news-worthy stampedes flashed through my mind. I knew I had to keep myself upright to not be pulled under, becoming the next statistic.

Then it was over as quickly as it had begun. The crowds dissipated in an instant, and we were left standing in the intersection as if nothing had ever happened. I hurried over to Esther and we turned down a path before the next wave came crashing.

The crowds thickened and thinned as we made our way past food stalls, admiring what was on offer. Hands were strategically placed on my butt during the indeterminable moments of whether it was intentional or not. Though my glaring eyes pierced through the person behind me each time I whipped my head around to see who it was.

We heard the next stampede before we saw it, and darted under the tent of a restaurant stall just before bodies collided with an audible smack.  The woman behind the table we stood near was pan frying meat and noodles on gas-flamed hot plates. Bodies brushed up against the table amidst the commotion, threatening to topple it and all its contents. Each time the table shook, she picked up a small 2x4 piece of wood and whacked it repeatedly on the tabletop while simultaneously yelling things we didn't understand at the crowd.

Minutes later, gaps were visible between individuals that grew wider and wider each passing second. Then the world stopped as another sound was heard, and everyone outside the quickly formulated circle immediately stood in their tracks.

The sound of fist hitting face reverberated in my ear, even at the near 20 foot distance.

"Stop!" I uncontrollably yelled. "Stop!"

My voice was the only other sound heard.

Once the friends of the assailant saw the near lifeless body of his victim on the ground, having given up the fight numerous seconds prior, they encouraged him to walk away.

All bystanders began walking away too, stepping over and around the body laying motionless on the ground.

I rushed over to help. When he began to pick himself up, I petitioned the remaining idyll bystanders to help him over to a seat near the stall where Esther still stood.

Three men were already seated at the spot we placed him.

"Tell him to drink this," we requested the men while pressing the mouth of a water bottle to the wounded boy's lips.

We stood by for a number of minutes, until he regained enough consciousness to explain he was more embarrassed than anything else.

Not wanting to embarrass him further, and ready to move on, we urged the guys next to him to make sure he doesn't fall asleep.

"But we're not his friends," they said. "We don't know him."  Like that was justification enough to let him be.

We walked away, having explained the importance of making sure he stays awake - friend of theirs or not.

"Well that was enough excitement for me," I half-heartedly joked to Esther while climbing atop a cement-walled fence we had to jump over in order to avoid the pedestrian trafficked paths.

"Yeah, I'm ready to go back to the hotel too," she agreed.

I took one last glance around me from the wall I sat upon, watching the flow of people wander up and down the pathways in one direction and a balloon expanding in the other.  Oh, Myanmar, I thought.

I turned my head forward and hopped off the wall, landing face first into a pool of thick, fresh mud.