As a young man I loved to stay in youth hostels, sleeping with my moneybelt wrapped loosely but detectably around my then-slender waist and my 35 mm Canon camera tied to my right leg. With a carefree modus I’d backpack throughout the UK, Europe and Asia meeting various like-minded and interesting folks along the way. In Europe it seemed to be mostly Australians and in Asia mostly Germans. It seems that I’m still doing the same thing decades later, albeit with just a few changes—little first class, five star, private tour kinda details. But I still meet some really interesting people. On this trip to Burma I selected the most opulent high-end hotels I could possibly find in an attempt to once again hang out with Aerosmith at the hotel bar as I did last year at the Ritz club in Tokyo. But alas, so far it has been mostly loud Germans or no one at all.
North of Mandalay I met a Frenchman, Michel, who surprisingly spoke less English than the rudimentary French articulation I could muster. Normally a little reclusive I embraced this opportunity to maintain my ailing French as it was late at night and I was in five-star middle of nowhere anticipating the possible appearance of Aerosmith at the bar. I also hoped that soon I might meet an English-challenged Spaniard for similar selfish scholastic reasons. Michel was a quiet man, probably in his late forties, with white seemingly un-pigmented skin and the composure and face of a slight lonely timorous shrew. His abundant hair, like that of a teenage Brazilian girl, was pulled back tersely over his head and gathered in a small ponytail at the back, but not in any describable rock star fashion. Thin and tall he walked with a Jim Carrey stoop as though playing in the sequel to that over rated and lugubrious Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events movie. His intense bashfulness caused him to bob his head in apparent submission to anyone in his path even when he shuffled to get another small pastry at breakfast time. But hey, as the only tourists I’d talk to him over a few drinks or a pastry.
In the western Burmese city of Mrauk-U there were only two tourists in that land; me and, yes, you guessed—a German from Munich who went by the name of Thomas Erlich. Thomas spoke in perfectly good but loud halting English like an overweight five year-old only-child American boy. I assume he was loud in his native German dialogue too. Like competing warriors we quickly assessed each other’s strengths and weaknesses in travel prowess. Ouch—he threw gut punches such as Afghanistan, Tibet, and the Kingdom of Bhutan. But I countered with powerful jabs and hooks including Alice Springs, Saipan, and Mozambique. After we had exhausted the Times Map of the World we called time. With the intense heat and fierce competition the back of Thomas’ shirt was wet with sweat, but he acknowledged I beat him squarely in that albeit noncompetitive category. However, he undoubtedly won when it came to monkdom. I could only claim a few monasteries that had been converted into five star hotels, such as Cusco, in Peru. He was seriously into monasteries in a big way and the next day as part of the negotiated treaty on my travelogue-ian defeat I accompanied him to a nearby Myanmar monastery (see photos below).
Generally, more Burmese than I expected spoke a tad of English this time around. When my acupuncturist Soe-Soe, pronounced so so, first told me her name (I am so so) I replied, naw I bet you’re really good. I tried to explain this was a veiled reference to the classic Python Mr. Smoketoomuch sketch (you need to cut down then!), but that went miles over her head. I should have known better to keep multi cultural humor to a more basic keystone cop kinda level. But communicating through humor runs in the family and my Dad was particularly good at it with his epic one-liner responses. In the late 1970s my grandfather’s brother (known to us all as Uncle Chick) had a 50th wedding anniversary and Dad asked some rather large older lady who appeared to be dressed in a beige and white patchwork quilt of doylies if she would like to dance. She clutched her more than ample bosom and said och no I canny dance wae ma chist. Dad immediately retorted, oh c’mon hen yae canny dance withoot it. They did dance while Dad hammed it up as usual, with an impressive array of North Korean goose-stepping moves.
As much as humor is a crutch for me, I am sometimes notorious for maybe injecting too much joviality in otherwise solemn situations. For example, last year when I was finalizing my Ph.D. I thought my professor was being a little too detail oriented. So I thought I’d throw a curve ball into one of my final manuscripts, as we say in America, just for shits and grins. For this little dark corner of my work I was analyzing the probability of the successful progression of an entrepreneur from business start up to exit within a corporate governance framework, whether it ended as an IPO, trade sale or so on. So I made a well-researched comparison to the potential life expectancy of a Canadian pacific leather back turtle surviving through a typical harsh Canadian pacific life cycle. Citing many revered sources I projected the probability of the darling little mammal making it from the egg to the ocean, and through all of the lugubrious phases of its challenging life including its return to nesting as an adult. (It was less than 1% by the way for Mrs. Turtle). Much to my surprise my professor merely recommended a few edits to the text essentially approving the inclusion of this bizarre association to stay in the research. So I reflected that I really didn’t take it far enough and that I should have reached more for the stars. Perhaps I should have made a comparison with the decline in construction accidents since the introduction of the Office of Health and Safety Act, or something more peculiar along those lines.
When I tell my Mom some of the more humorous stories from this trip, she will probably say to me, ”I don’t know where you get all this from.” And I will answer solemnly; Burma.