Chugging Slowly Upriver in Northwest Burma: Part I

I met my Australian mate Iain in immersion language class: he’d married a German, too. Together we confronted the ‘small’ detail of learning the native tongue. That was 19 years ago. Both of us are still here, still married to our Germans, and we’re still friends.

Iain likes my blog, but he’s irritated with the photo I selected for the top border. “Why do you say ‘Greetings from Germany’, and then use a photo on a river somewhere?

Billowing sail

Billowing sail

“It’s a nice picture and all that, but why don’t you have a picture of Germany?” he went on. “When all’s said and done Deutschland‘s your home now.”

“It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want,” I thought. But he’s right, and I promised Iain I’ll work up a post about beer or Christmas Markets or beer at the Christmas Markets. (Actually, at the Weihnachtsmarkt everyone drinks an amazing hot mulled wine called Glühwein, but that’s a different post.)

So, in the interests of clarity:

The photograph runner at the top of my page was taken as we chugged slowly up the Kaladan River in northwest Burma. For close to 8 hours we sailed by other boats.

Family transportation

Family transportation

We passed a continuous landscape of grazing water buffalo,

Water buffalo

high round haystacks,

Haystacks along the river

and villages along the water.

Everyone works busily

Our goal was to travel from Sittwe to Mrauk U (pronounced more or less “Mrou Oo”), once capitol to the ancient Rakhine kingdom that based its money and power on maritime  trade with Europe, India, and Arabia. Mrauk U’s king employed Japanese samarai as body guards!

There is just 1 road over land to Mrauk U. As of 2009 only the Burmese were permitted to use it. Tourists arrived by boat, or not at all.

The excitement of a boat sailing past

We needed to reach Mrauk U as a jumping-off point to get to the villages of the Chin State. This semi-autonomous region is very near the border to Bangladesh. We hoped to see the traditional tattoed elders and could visit the area with an assigned guide, a special day visa, and a goodly dose of luck. Maybe the elders would come out to meet us; maybe they wouldn’t. We’d have to hire a boat to take us even further upriver and see what happened from there.

On the last day of the year 2009 we climbed into a second, much smaller boat, this one on the Lemro River, and continued up to the Chin State.

Part 2 to be posted soon.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

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It Was a Bitterly Cold -22°

For 14 years my husband spent half of every winter up in northern Sweden, working on a frozen lake. The engineers flew up for 2 week stints, leaving home on Mondays and returning two weeks later on a Friday evening charter flight.

The very last year that Uwe did this stint, his company began to allow family members to take advantage of the flights. At the end of March 2001, on the vernal equinox, I flew up to meet Uwe in the region broadly known as Lappland.

Limited access roads

My flight was delayed while President Putin flew through European airspace back to Russia. By the time I arrived it was close to midnight, and we had to drive an hour further north to reach Arjeplog. It was a bitterly cold -22° and on either side of the deserted road the snow piles loomed. But we kept stopping the car to get out – the Northern Lights were dancing in the heavens! So far north, surrounded by nothing but woods and the glittering of stars, the aurora borealis played across the horizen.

I heard a weird background swishing noise underneath the sound of my heart beat. I was listening to the borealis. As I stood on the frigid road my optic nerves took pictures of the Northern Lights. It was so quiet that the part of my brain which processes sound picked up signals leaking out from the images. Early explorers in the Arctic Circle reported this experience. (They discovered when they put their hands over their eyes, the sounds went away.)

The Lights are caused by disturbance in the magnetic field of the earth’s poles. Energy generated by solar winds is hurled from the sun at incredibly high speeds. The solar winds get stopped when they hit the magnetic field. Electrons and atoms from the windstorms collide, and that creates the lights.

In some parts of Sweden and Norway, people earlier described the aurora borealis as the reflection of Silleblixt, millions of herring swimming in the sea. The Eskimos have a legend about the Northern Lights. They think the aurora borealis lights up the trail of the afterlife. This is a dangerous, narrow path that souls must take when they leave dead bodies and head to heaven.

Some cultures mention the lights as dancers in the heavens. Scotsmen call the Northern Lights ‘Merry Dancers’. In the Middle Ages, if people saw the Northern Lights and they contained red, it meant a war was starting somewhere in the world. The red color was death and the blood being spilled in battles. I just saw different shades of white lights and no other colors in the spectrum. And I definitely thought they were alive, like dancers.

The next day we drove north and officially crossed into the Arctic Circle. The trees ended altogether and the landscape beyond this point was a dome of snow meeting an azure sky.

It had warmed up to -6° and the day was clear and beautiful

The Swedes refer to this time of year as winter-spring, the 5thand most beautiful season of all. I made a snow angel

A snow angel for the Arctic Circle

and spotted a rare Arctic white ptarmigan. We drove past spots on the deserted roads where black garbage bags hung dark against the snow. These are a signal for drivers that a herd of reindeer is grazing somewhere nearby.

That weekend is the only time I have seen the Northern Lights. They have danced in my memories ever since.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)