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Almost crying in Bagan

I guess you could say I am now on the verge of tears, or at least have been for a while (and it's wearing off) -- since I came back from a little expedition on a horse cart around Bagan, visiting some of the poorest villages in the area to drop off a good share of the presents I still have with me (like marbles, balloons (latex ones, so biodegradable), soap bubbles, hair pins, fake jewellery, balls, and pens and paper), as well as a bunch of tubes of toothpaste, bars of soap, and bottles of shampoo, which I had picked up on the way just before.

My sadness comes from two aspects of this experience. The first, which is minor because I had expected it, was simply to (once again) witness the conditions under which the poorest of the poor live: in bamboo houses together with their cattle and pigs (everyone here seems well aware of bird flu and have taken the appropriate precautions; the government apparently did a good job in educating its people), with trash and feces all over the place, kids with almost no clothing and the elderly obviously sick from a distance. But I've actually seen worse in Laos and expected it, so that wasn't the main source of my tristesse.

What almost made my eyes water was rather the fact that in the first village of the two I managed today, my arrival and obvious wish to give out gifts resulted in fights among the kids, and in dishonest behaviour by some, while the mob was almost ready to run me over as everyone (including grownups) was stretching out the hand and grabbing at whatever I pulled out of my bag. Call me naive, but that part I did not expect. It's understandable, as for these people, anything makes a difference, sometime and existential one, but they are Bhuddist after all, and among the teachings of the Bhudda you can find such lines as "do not be dishonest", and its philosophy (which carries throughout many non-Bhuddist Asian countries) includes the rule to never lose one's face, which covers shouting or fighting.

On my first trip to Southeast Asia -- Vietnam -- I reached some remote villages in the Tonkinese Alps in the country's north -- villages which where equally poor, but which were also quite detached from civilisation as found around larger cities. While money still served as the main means of exchange, it appears to have a much lesser meaning to the people, who are mostly self-sufficient to a point of independence from the government as far as you can get (I guess). In these villages, I also passed out presents, but never had an experience such as the one today (nor did we experience something of this sort in some of the villages in Laos, equally removed from the main lines of infrastructure). Rather than fighting for the gifts, the kids would share them. Rather than tears, the gifts brought smiles. It thus seems that civilisation as we know it causes the competition even among kids, and that's the part that fills me with sadness at the same time as it disillusions me quite a bit, because that kind of civilisation will inevitably spread.

Going off on a tangent (without the intention to return), I have been thinking a lot about my "mission" in Myanmar, which was to bring clothing and medication, as well as gifts to the poor. While one could interpret this mission -- carrying more than 15 kg of "stuff" through the stifling heat -- as an altruistic act, I also cannot deny the selfish component, because I take great joy in helping people. If you recall, dropping off the clothing I had brought in a village a couple of miles outside of Pyin Oo Lwin didn't fill me with the satisfaction I had hoped to gain, mainly because I was obviously misinformed about Myanmar (btw: I am calling it Myanmar again, which is actually what locals use, unless they speak with tourists). Fortunately, however, I quite easily managed to accept that the mission was still a success for the people undoubtedly were helped quite a lot. If there is one thing I have learnt for sure this time around, then it's that I will return, sooner rather than later, and hopefully with a lot more goods than this time around.

This trip has been self-funded, which is why I am also (trying to) spend most time on vacation. I could well imagine that the next time might see me just running the goods there and fly back after only a couple of days. Of course, there are no details, but keep this in the back of your heads (and pass it on), just in case you'd be willing to donate funds to finance the trip.

This brings me to another, somewhat related topic, which I have been pondering ever since I arrived in Myanmar, and especially so after I met and talked to a Portuguese globetrotter, last night: the topics of beggars and how to support these countries in effective ways. Let me address those in turn, the second one first as it's more closely related to my braindump you just read (thanks for that), and because I am nowhere near a resolution and can thus sum it up in three sentences: even though individual aid trips, like the one I am on, are helping, I would guess their effectiveness to be quite low, and raising this effectiveness certainly requires a lot of effort and infrastructure. Thus, it may be more beneficial if I were to donate my will to help to an existing organisation already established and connected in the Southeast Asian countries. I am not talking Unicef and other, similar large organisations (some of which I do support already, and if only financially), but rather much smaller endeavours that concentrate on this area only --surely the need for help exists in all developing countries, but I am most interested in helping Southeast Asia, for the people here have taught me so many valuable things that have changed my life.

On the first topic -- beggars -- let me say this much: if you've been to developing countries, you know what I am talking about. If you have not, just imagine all sorts of people (but mostly poor-looking) coming up to you with their hand stretched out, saying "money, money" repeatedly and not respecting a "no" in any way. Any guide book advises you not to give any money, because it will increase the "nuisance" these beggars are to future tourists. But at one point during my time here, I was as far as giving a small amount to everyone who came up (unless there were more around, at which point it would just get out of control too fast) by reason that it doesn't hurt me a bit, and that despite the syndicates and other arguments against it, if you are actually helping one out of ten beggars, that's one more than zero. Since then, however, I've found some more compelling arguments, and the one that's been the most persuasive so far is that a beggar's success attracts more beggars, and while the guide books call that a "nuisance", the real problem is that these people come from villages to cities, from places where they are self-sufficient (at least in Myanmar with its vast resources) to places where they'll end up sleeping on the streets.

Enough of that for now, you can be sure there will be more another time; on to something completely different:

This is the first time I am travelling Southeast Asia while blogging, and I have very mixed feelings about it. First of all, Myanmar isn't the place for easy Internet access, so it's been quite painful to keep publishing (which was only possible thanks to the help of Hanspeter back at home; thanks), nor is it the place where you'd be inclined to spend a couple of pensive hours in front of the screen while serialising your thoughts into writing -- the power keeps coming and going every couple of minutes, and frequently the battery-backed power supplies most people have cannot bridge the downtime.

But that's not the reason why I am not really too satisfied with my blog entries so far. I have found it difficult to write even in Thailand, where Internet access was excellent, and I guess it's mainly due to two reasons: first, there is too much going on outside and the fear of losing a minute of "street action" to these godaweful computers just keeps me from taking the time to think before writing. The second reason is related: impressions need time to settle, and I guess in some ways I do prefer very much to just "be", rather than experiencing with the objective to blog about it in the back of your head at all times (I am a geek after all, don't forget that). I guess I'll try it another time since having Aline along for the first part, and then being subjected to Myanmar's suboptimal information infrastructure, may be factors of larger value than I see them right now.

By the way: this blog does not contain all of my writings while I am here, for obvious reasons, so there is more to come if you are interested, but not via this channel. I'll let you know.

Now, on the boring side: I returned to the temples in the late afternoon yesterday and saw another three or four, before sprawling out on top of another in aspiration of the sunset to be Obscured By Clouds (which is when I talked to the aforementioned globetrotter for an hour or so). I did find that after all, Bagan didn't have much in store for me, having seen some of the temples at Angkor. The scenery is breathtaking, and some temples are really astonishing views, but as soon as you get on the inside, they are mostly walls and Bhuddas, one similar to the others, and thus quite unlike to what I'd seen in Angkor last year. Since I am also not the type of guy to go off meditating for a day in a remote location, or take my book far away to read in peace, I think that this one day between the temples was enough for me.

Maybe the temperature did play a role too, but there was no question for me: I was to do something else the next day (which is today), rather than go out again on that horse cart. I thus joined up with some Australian travellers on their overland way to their new home, London, and hired a taxi to Mount Popa, home of the 37 Nats (spirits) which are closely knit into the Burmese culture. After a 25 minute climb up steep stairs, I found myself again disappointed by a somewhat dirty and absolutely non-pretty stupa on the top of the hill. The view (and temperature) was great though, so no hard feelings, but also no time lost to head back to the hotel, to get on with the village hopping I had planned for the afternoon.

Tomorrow morning I am leaving for Hohe and Inle Lake, where it'll be much cooler (or so they say). Stay tuned.

PS: And of course, Murakami's novel is not called "Kafka at the Beach", as I wrote in yesterday's entry, but "Kafka on the Shore". I guess it must have been yesterday's intense heat causing that Freudian slip. Anyway, the book is truly captivating and I am afraid I'll zoom through those 600 pages faster than I'd like, given that it's the last of the books I brought. Hopefully I'll find something to pick up on the way that's not Agatha Christie, Dan Brown, Jane Austen, or the other wonderful writers of entertainment fiction, which I'd rather not read even if you paid me for it.