13.793595 N, 92.890955 E Bay of Bengal Sailing just north of the Adaman and Nicobar Islands En route to Kochi, India, one and a half days out of Yangon…
Looking down from my vantage point ten decks above, at the waters flowing by our ship at the deep sea port of Thilawa, on the Yangon branch of the Irrawaddy River delta, I noticed that they run in swirling striations of blue and brown, in proportions depending on the motions of the large tides that characterize the region… mostly blue when flowing in from the Adaman Sea, muddy brown when ebbing in the other direction.
Irrawaddy River Delta
I found that similar flows and mixings define the cultural, political, and social situation in the country of Myanmar, sitting as it does at a crossroads of diverse cultures, at a time of shifting balances between tradition and modernism, differing views of governance, and things essentially local or global.
The visit we just concluded would not have been possible only a few short years ago… Let me tell you just a little bit about what I saw, heard, and experienced…
Originally a monarchy, then a British colony, Myanmar gained independence in 1948, with a government marked by strongman, socialist, and rather eccentric military rule, in which its back was turned to the world. It opened up to that world in 2010. Elections, generally characterized as fair, were held two years later, and yielded a sweeping victory for the dominant opposition party.
Foreign investments, and the global tourist trade, began to arrive in its wake… but not so rapidly, or so powerfully, as to push earlier times and their ways to the margins, at least not yet.
And so it is a fascinating place, and time, to visit. Like most places of intersection, it is rich with life, and the change and growth that defines life.
Our first evening’s tour guide, on the bumpy 15 mile bus ride over privately built, privately tolled, roads from port to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and back, shared his perspectives on his homeland and peoples, openly, often with a healthy dose of passion, sometimes intense, sometime leavened with a far-off look…
We learned from him about:
The many, some rather extraordinary, excesses of the former military ruling regime — from vast deforestation, to radical manipulation of taxes on automobiles, to the choice of mystically inspired currency denominations (based on combinations around the leader’s personal lucky number, nine), to overnight decisions to change the side of the road on which one drives (and how that requires most larger vehicles, the majority of which are imported from Japan with right side drive, to have a second person help the driver navigate the resulting mis-match of road and vehicle).
How the locally lagging economy, and traditional Chinese rote-based education system, was creating a brain drain. His brother is making 20x as an engineer in Singapore, compared to what he could make here ($50K vs. $2.5K per year). He expressed whistful hope that this flow could be reversed (“brain drain becomes brain gain”) through more enlightened education and economic reforms.
How long-time dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was, in his view, more effective under house arrest, before reforms and the resulting elections allowed her a place in government… and about the bizarre constitution that bars widows with foreign offspring to hold the position of president… a provision blatantly written with her in mind.
About the uncertainties of how coming elections (fall, 2015) will play out, given fears of the re-assertion of military power. (Tides reverse regularly after all.)
How there are 135 distinct ethnic groups in the country, with generally peaceful co-existance among them, as well as between the followers of many of the world’s major religions (but for an exception near the border with Bangldesh, and its overwhelmingly Muslim population). 80% of the country is Buddhist.
How (in great detail) one grows poppy for opium production, how profitable it can be compared to other crops — and how efforts to create counter-incentives designed to curb production have not yet worked. (Without much apparent reservation, he explained that he and his father proposed to join his neighbor, in the “Golden Triangle” region to the north, in such production. His mother forbade it.)
How the coming of social media and internet connectivity has been a mixed influence, amplifying ethnic tensions, previously muted or locally contained. (Smart phones are everywhere.)
How the people of Myanmar feel tiny, squeezed in between its giant powerful neighbors of India and China. Commenting on border tensions with the latter, he said a common joke is that “If war with China would ever come, all they would have to do is to get their people to all piss in our direction, and we’d be washed out to sea!”
How China is looking to create influence and leverage, not make war, through development assistance. The main bridge from port over the Yangon river was donated by the Chinese.
I’ve kept a journal, more or less faithfully, for years now. Here are my entries for the past two days. First…
Tuesday, 17 March George Town, Malaysia
Ellie tried her best to kill me this day, arranging a walking tour, led by an unknown distant Malay relative of the Marquis de Sade. Tiny little thing. Seemed friendly enough. Wrong. Vicious to the core.
The day started with a breathless, interminable, climb of at least 900 feet vertical (seemed double that) in 90 degree, 90% humidity to a temple, Kek Lok Si (which, I think, translates to “house of the smiling new widow”), in the central highlands of George Town…
… then proceeded to two museums, each converted from the homes of their last residents, both Chinese, both owing their wealth to an admixture of speakable and unspeakable ventures in the last century.
Both patriarchs are certainly smiling now, each enjoying their respective glorious and final rewards, at the sight of busloads of tourists sweating in the unrelenting tropical climate, as tales of their business acumen and spectacular accomplishments are related… at… great… never ending… length.
Wednesday,18 March Phuket, Thailand
Having been unsuccessful in arranging for my demise yesterday in George Town Malaysia, Ellie redoubled her efforts today.
Response to a weather report, optimistically pegged at 94 degrees, 90% relative humidity?
Says Ellie, “Great, let’s take an open-to-the-elements boat trip, bound for sights that would have been spectacular, but for the unfavorable tides… and then go walkabout” on a couple of islands whose most memorable features may just have been the souvenir vendors, all in row (at “James Bond Island”) or in a rabbit warren of stalls (in the floating “Muslim Village”), who, in their torpor, did not even mount an honest effort at peddling their wares.
Next most memorable thing? The tour director emphasizing each opportunity to use a toilet.
A closing observation: it’s interesting how, as one advances beyond the flowering of youth, just how much effort you expend, given hours on a small craft crammed with near contemporaries clad in shorts and tees, trying to find favorable points of comparison between one’s physique and those of shipmates.
Post Post Confession: the history was actually rather interesting on day one, and the scenery spectacular on day two, and I enjoyed both in the end, (much as aficionados of S&M must enjoy their special pleasures).
Finally, I was able to confirm to my great relief that, despite suspicions to the contrary, Ellie has NOT taken out a large life insurance policy on me.
As I explained in my last post, I’m taking a MOOC at Stanford, entitled “Creativity: Music to My Ears.” Each week we have to tackle a “Challenge.” This week’s was focused on developing skills in observing and capturing details from your environment, in line with the idea that creativity starts with paying attention.
Our particular task was to find a place to capture all of the sounds heard over a half hour, and organize them into a mind map, and (optionally) into a soundtrack / video.
I worked from our place in Carmel Valley for ten days in late August, returning to NY last weekend, sad to leave it, and Ellie, behind. Our plan was for her to follow a few days later. Fate intervened however, when a business trip back to the west coast had to be organized at the last minute… a clear message from God. Result: a very nice long anniversary (35th!) weekend in paradise with my loving bride.
One rainy day in Maui, not very long ago, I found myself huddled (in Hawaii… huddled?) in a pool side cabana, reading Jimmy Buffett's A Salty Piece of Land. At one point in the story his character is entertained on an old sailboat, captained by a woman of similar vintage. Over and over she played a scratchy 78 recording of Carlos Gardel, who the story reveals as a French-born Argentine singer of the early 20th century, best known for music to tango by.
Well, I hadn't heard of Gardel at the time, but was curious and equipped to learn… having set up a WiFi access point in my room, only about 75 meters above, and with a laptop at my side. Five minutes later, I had read his Wikipedia biography, ten minutes after that had the story's album downloaded from ITunes, and moments later was able to continue with my reading to just the right soundtrack on my IPod.
Since then, Gardel's music has become something of a favorite, played often, softly, on certain mornings, at our home in Carmel Valley. Today was one of those mornings.
Sitting at the window, once again reading (Business Model Generationthis time), occasionally turning to gaze out on the foggy scene all around, I decided to pick up where I left off in my earlier impromptu digital melding of things old and new. There's an App for that, actually several…
I downloaded Super 8™ ,an App that mimics an old home movie camera, onto my IPhone, shot a simple roving walk-around, uploaded it (via ITunes) onto my Mac, edited it with IMovie, adding that Gardel soundtrack captured years earlier, uploaded the result to Vimeo, and embedded the result into this post to share with you here… all in less time than it's taking for the fog to clear from the valley below…
They start arriving an hour or so after sunrise, to a place where fisherman gather well earlier still. But their interest lies not in boats and tackle. They are car people, drawn to this place by the love of fast, exotic, beautiful or otherwise interesting machines, and by the others who share their passion.
Some roll up in Porsches, others in Ferraris, many in vintage examples of American muscle. Some of their rides are fresh from a showroom, others lovingly restored. Some stock, some customized. Some old, others new. All reflect the pride of their owners as clearly as they do the bright morning light on this Sunday in April.
I've been to more than a few motor sports events, on both coasts. (I'm a car guy too.) While the spoken accents and event incidentals vary, it's a fact that car people are, well, car people.
At The Quail in Carmel Valley, the dress runs from California upscale casual to dead-on period costume, food is served by a half dozen area gourmet restaurants accompanied by champagne and martinis (before noon — very civilized). Vintage fighter planes do flyovers and music from a quartet of bands plays throughout the day.
Here, in the parking lot at Captree State Park, on Long Island's south shore, the dress tends toward leather jackets and wind-breakers, the bagels and bialeys from the facility's cafeteria style restaurant are washed down by coffee appreciated as much for its hand warming properties as its taste, and the side show is of late-starting fishing boats leaving to try their luck on today's catch.
But, whether holding flutes of bubbly or carrying their "cawfee," car folks at these meets do pretty much the same thing.
First, they arrange for a suitable spot to display their toy. In The Quail, that's all set in advance, and events personnel guide the way. Here, it's first come, first serve for the best spots (although one imagines that the regulars may have the benefit of an understanding on certain of those — and groups of friends will stake out adjacent slots for their later-to-arrive buddies.)
Then, folding chairs are deployed. Even those are the subject of mutual interest and individual pride. "Look, it comes with this attachment for your stuff, and folds into the size of a laptop," explained the fellow three slots to the west, upon erecting a particulary impressive model, just withdrawn from the front compartment of his maroon Ferrari 460.
Polishing comes next, always polishing. On this day I was a bit self-concious at this stage, since my friend Tim's suggestion to participate arrived too late the evening before, by txt, to allow for the washing away of the effects of last week's rain. Photoshop, in this record of events, serves as a handy alternative:
Strolling about, by participants and visitors grouping and re-grouping into small circles to talk cars and equipment, then commences and continues for the two hours of the event, a sort of unofficial duration here. A longer, more officially delimited period exists at the decidedly professionally produced event in California. Among the regulars, there's an easy camaraderie. Newcomers, like me, are accepted warmly.
On this particular day, a less welcome element was added to the routine. Presumably driven by a desire to do their regiment's bit in reducing New York State's impressive deficit, four or five state troopers, deployed in a phalanx near the entrance to the facility, busied themselves pulling over arriving participants who failed to have mounted the front license plate mandatory here. Easy pickings, since very few of us like to see the frontal aspect of our babies defaced with government signage.
"Want one? They're giving them away for free," explained another Ferrari owner, unfolding the white rectangular summons for examination.
"Hot car tax," commented a Porsche owner, another beneficiary of state attention.
The best social commentary award, actually said with a smile and genuine good humor in an accent fresh from Brooklyn, went to another, who added definitively, "They found the bodies of four young women buried in the sand a few miles up the road. Case still not solved…. and they're here, doing this?" (True story, sadly.)
It proved to be that comments on priorities were best kept to among friends. One unlucky fellow, apparently upon opining to "his" officer directly, found his prize vehicle being readied for flat-bed transport to a state lock-up shortly after.
But the best response of all, one in keeping with the "boys and their toys" spirit of the event, went to the owner of a brand new red Porsche Boxter Spyder, who proudly spent the morning showing off his remote-controlled front license place retractor. Driving around town or at the meet? Keep the plate tucked away out of sight, neatly folded in below the air dam. At risk of official attention? Press the button on your key fob, and the plate slides up into place. Nice, a bit reminiscent of Bond:
Since I wasn't 100% sure of the legal situation as would relate to my California-registered and rear-only plated car, I decided to take advantage of a peak in enforcement activity occupying the entire local contingent in upholding the laws of the land, to make my exit. The morning was getting late, and I had to get the car washed anyway…
Later that afternoon, at an upscale shopping area on Long Island's north shore, about to get into my car to retrieve Ellie from the other end of the complex, I was interrupted (pleasantly) by an older couple, who wanted to know about it, how I thought it handled compared to related models, and to let me know that there is a concours at the center in October. As I said, car people are car people…
The view is from the writing table in my livingroom, about 2 O'Clock level. Those peaks faintly outlined in the distance lie about twenty miles to the southeast, beyond those framing the other side of Carmel Valley in the foreground.
The light and atmospherics change constantly here, with the seasons, time of day and weather patterns. Sometimes blindingly bright and clear. Fog-bound at others. Raging with wind and horizontal rain, or quiet enough to hear a coyotee's yapping a great long way down the ravine below.
At times red tail hawks will ride the currents to a fixed hovering position just above or adjacent to our property, waiting for a meal to present itself in the tall grasses that lie below.
Whether inspiring moods of calm reflection and far away thoughts, or of rapt wonderment at nature's here-and-now beauty, this view always draws the eye.
Very little that is man-made falls into the frame. The sculpture just left of center is an exception, but not really. A kinetic work by a former aerospace engineer from southern California, the twisting dance of its upper armature, put into motion by even the slightest of breezes (ah, engineering…), it seems less a separate object than a condensation of its natural environment. A three dimensional bit of haiku about its surroundings.
When I'm away, this is how I think of Carmel Valley. When there, it's what I treasure most.