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I thought to myself that, most likely, this cave also had a prehistory as long and complex as that of the Padal-Lin Caves, with one crucial difference. Prehistory had become the present. The Pindaya Caves are still in use, so vestiges of their prehistoric use are long gone.
Koh Zan told us that he had first come here as a small child with his grandmother. Unlike the present time, at that time there were no stairs or handrails inside, only the bare stone. The local legend is that the cave was first used by a monk as a holy place for meditation and contemplation about 1,100 years ago. You could never convince me that they weren’t used long before that time, as well.
So, the question I pose is this: How is the function of these religious symbols — in the cave as a set aside, holy place — any different from the function of prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves? I propose that the reverent placement of these more than 8,000 Buddha images is is merely the modern manifestation of the same impulse that inspired the prehistoric wall paintings in this and other caves . . .
Spiritual Direction for those interested
There are no shots of David because he was manning the camera
We hit open water just as darkness descended. As it was Chinese New Year, there was no moon. The dark, silhoutted bank the lake in the distance reminded me of times as a small child, when I would be out on the water in a boat at night with my parents. We always lived near the water and had a boat. Whether during the time when we lived on a lake or during the time when we would sail on Tampa Bay at night, there would always come a time, while we were navigating home at night, when I would look out into the darkness and wonder with some amazement how my parents could find their way home. They would navigate by stars, by knowledge of general direction, and by shadows of bays and trees. As we would get closer, the distant shadows would become more distinct and more familiar, with the mysterious, unknown slowly giving way to the recognizable and familiar.
But here, there was nothing familiar to be seen. It also became apparent that not very much of the lake, with its 100,000 surrounding inhabitants, had electricty at night. David said to me, "Our hotel does have electricity, doesn’t it?" I could hear real trepidation in his voice. We were approaching a brightly lit, hotel, adorned with Christmas lights all around. "Of course our hotel has electricity," I said with cheery confidence. "That’s probably it right there!" But we rode past that hotel, on into the darkness. I didn’t dare voice my own lack of confidence. Fortunately, another hotel appeared on the far horizon, also with lights, and it turns out that was, indeed, our destination. It did have electricity, after all!
Our hotel consisted of numerous small buildings, all built on stilts and connected by boardwalks. As we entered the small harbor area formed by the surrounding buildings, a five piece percussion band struck up a cacauphonous chorus to greet us. We had arrived. Koh San got us checked in, then he set off quickly again in the boat. He was staying somewhere else. It was already quite dark and everyone needed to get in off the water.
Each room consisted of a separate small hut that had its own bath and small indoor and outdoor sitting areas. While we did need the supplied two blankets per bed, we didn’t need additional heat. We also made use of the mosquito netting, as this is a country where malaria and dengue fever are endemic. But our surroundings were lovely and quiet. Very nice.
After supper, we learned that there was only generator powered electricity after 8:00 PM, and no power whatsoever after 11:00 PM. Enforced lights out! Now, that’s a real vacation! There was also no internet, and phone calls to the USA cost $7 per minute. Well, I guess that means we won’t be calling in to the office. Welcome relief!
We all managed to have showers — hot showers even — prior to lights out at 11:00. The only one issue problem with the lights out is that in the pitch blackness of a moonless night, it can be slightly problematic if one needs to find the loo! Oh well, minor challenges, I thought. We gave our only flashlight to our children, who were staying in a different hut, in case they needed it during the night.
For the first time in months, we saw stars in a clear, moonless sky with no artificial light to mar the view. It’s amazing the clarity with which one notices what one has been missing, when it suddenly reappears. For us, the appearance of stars in the sky was a cause celebre! We wanted to applaud. We were truly on vacation.
Blog: Myanmar Day 6: Mandalay, Part III
Our Burmese Doctor
When we got off the plane, Susanna planned to take us to visit a monastery where we could tour the monastery and then see approximately 1,500 monks when they lined up to receive their daily lunch. However, there was a slight glitch in this plan.
Somewhere between Yangon and Bagan, Clarissa began complaining of a sore throat. Remember, we were in a country where we were not expecting access to western medical care. There is a Global Doctor clinic in Yangon, but by the time I suspected we might need such a clinic, we were far away from Yangon. Fortunately, I had carried antibiotics in case they were needed, albeit just plain penicillin for adults and one pediatric round of Augmentin.
When we arrived in Bagan, I gave Clarissa the penicillin and told her to start taking it. Twenty four hours later, however, she had gotten slightly worse. I told her to start the pediatric Augmentin and that we would try to find a western doctor in Mandalay. To my alarm, when I looked in her throat I saw that her tonsils were beet red, swollen, and covered in large white patches. Clarissa insisted she felt fine except her throat hurt too badly to eat.
When we got off the plane I asked Susanna to arrange to take us to a doctor. Susanna puzzled over where to take us. I already had read that the only medical option in Mandalay was the hospital, and I had no idea what that would be like. I told Susanna that a local doctor would do, as long as he had western training.
Another issue running through my mind was money. I had done something stupid: I had estimated what I thought the trip would cost and had brought just that much money. Our meals had already cost more than I had estimated, so there was nothing extra. We already felt we were running low on cash. Additionally, it is impossible to access an international bank account while in Myanmar. One must carry in all the cash one expects to need. If we had an emergency for cash, we would have had to do something extreme such as ask our travel agent to help us out. This was a factor in my telling Susanna that a local doctor would do; but my mind was perplexed by the question, “Is this a big mistake?”
I certainly didn’t want to make any mistakes that would harm my child’s health. I had purchased medical evacuation insurance at the time I purchased our air fare. As a family, we decided to try the local doctor as the first step. If she didn’t get better quickly, we’d pursue other options if needed, including a medical evacuation.
As we drove toward Mandalay, the road ran parallel to a canal which was on the right side, the same side as the traffic flow. Beside the roadway, there was a row of shade trees and an occasional small shop, then the canal, and then rice paddies.
On the left (opposite) side of the road, there were various kinds of shops and businesses in small, unpainted, wooden buildings that didn’t seem to have electricity. It looked like shops selling things like soft drinks, vegetables, pots and pans. Outside one of these buildings, there was a sign with a red cross: a medical clinic.
Susanna had the driver pull the car over onto the right shoulder. She told us to wait in the car while she went inside to inquire about the doctor’s credentials and whether he’d be willing to see a foreigner. It turns out, he spoke very good English, had a university diploma in medicine, and even had an Australian credential. And he was willing to see Clarissa.
I once read a N.Y. Times newspaper article which pointed out that one of the taboo subjects in discussions about the high cost of medical care in the United States is the issue of doctor compensation. If I remember correctly, this article said that an average physician in the USA makes more than double ($150,000) the relative salary of an average doctor in Europe ($60,000). In Europe, the average doctor lives about like an average, middle class person. In the USA, the average doctor lives about like an average upper middle class person.
The office of the local doctor in Mandalay was a striking example of a person who was earning a living roughly equivalent to the community which surrounded him. He was not making $60,000 per year. His office was a wooden building with a dirt floor and no screens on the windows. His examining room consisted of a small room with a table and a desk. There was no receptionist, no nurse. He was dressed in ordinary clothes. The doors and windows were all open and I didn’t see any electrical appliances or light bulbs. He had been reading a book before we arrived, sitting in the back room. I didn’t look closely in the back room, but it appeared to have a bed in it.
The doctor quizzed Clarissa about her medical history and then he asked her to lie on his table so he could listen to her chest and heartbeat and take her blood pressure. Then he looked in her ears and throat. He said she had severe tonsillitis and needed a tonsillectomy. We told him that we wanted to wait until we got back to China to do such a procedure. He gave Clarissa more of the same antibiotic she was already taking, but he also added another antibiotic (cephalexin I think)) to the mix. (If I’m not mistaken, this may be the same formulation which comprises augmentin?) He tried to use a medical tool to remove some of the detritus but it was stubborn and wouldn’t budge. Then, after he did the western medical thing, he said he’d also like to apply some traditional Ayurvedic medicine to her treatment, in which he had also been trained. What could we say? And, I thought, what harm could it do?
He stood beside her as she sat on the table and lightly massaged her throat with his fingers. He faced the wall, looking away from the rest of us, and closed his eyes to concentrate. Then, still feeling her throat, he began to belch. He interrupted himself to explain to us that he was not belching because he had indigestion, but rather to unblock whatever it was that was stopping up the energy channel (Chakra) in Clarissa’s throat. He did this for several minutes, it seemed. So I stood, in a wooden hut with a dirt floor, with a medicine man belching over my daughter, thinking to myself, “Have I made a terrible mistake?” At that moment I was thinking in terms of medical evacuation and really glad I had purchased the insurance; but we did have the antibiotic, and Clarissa insisted that evacuation wasn’t necessary, at least not yet. In fact, she insisted on continuing our tour rather than resting at the hotel as we offered to do.
I decided at that moment that this story would not go into my blog until the ending were known! There was a possibility that it could have been a dramatic ending to our vacation, routed to first world medical care in Bangkok. Fortunately, there was instead a nondescript and happy ending.
While I couldn’t judge about the Eastern portion of the medical care, the western portion was reasonable and appropriate. When we asked the doctor what his fee was, he refused to state one. He said we should only pay what we felt was fair. Looking at our cash, and trying to figure this out, I pulled 20,000 Kyet out of my wallet (roughly $18). Susanna saw the amount, I silently asked what she thought and she said it seemed about right (I knew that was about the amount Susanna was making for a full day’s work), and so that’s what I gave him. Looking back on it, I think I probably should have added in more for the cost of the antibiotics. The infection took several days to clear, but clear up it did. By the time we returned to China there was no trace of the tonsillitis, and we didn’t even feel a need for a follow up visit to the doctor here. And we have quite a memory to show for it!
Myanmar (Burma) Day 6: Mandalay Part II
Our Guide Susanna
When we arrived at the Mandalay Airport we were greeted by our guide Susanna. We had left our daily itineraries up to the discretion of our guides. This was both good and bad. They are the experts in their local areas, and they knew the places that people are interested in generally. They did not know our particular interests. If we ever do a trip like this again, I will be sure to communicate more with the guide ahead of time about our general interests, which seem to focus on art, music, culture, learning how people live in their daily lives, technology, and archaeology. Over time, and through observing and discussing our interests, each guide was able to begin to steer us to things we would find especially interesting.
Our guide Susanna had an especially interesting background. She had majored in Pali in college. Pali is the ancient, almost extinct, language of the Buddhist scriptures. Wikipedia is blocked from where I write, but here is a web page with a brief description of Pali: http://www.rootsweb.com/~lkawgw/pali.html
According to that web page, Pali was one of the Aryan dialects that moved into Southeast Asia (Sanskrit was another, distinct, dialect). It was most likely the language of the Buddha, has the largest body of religious literature in the world, is specialized in vocabulary for Buddhism (unlike Sanskrit). Pali was the Southeast Asian equivalent of Latin for about 1,000 years, and it continues to the the language of the modern Theraveda Buddhism (which is practiced in Myanmar). Sure enough, we heard ancient Buddhist prayers chanted in Pali language at various temples in Myanmar.
The Pali characters engraved in stone at many places (especially Kuthodaw Paya) look very similar to some that we saw on carvings at Angkor Wat, but I have no idea if there really is any similarity. Susanna was from Mandalay. I asked if she had studied archaeology as well, and she replied that yes, she had. Of course, that would be linked to preservation of ancient literature. Susanna was extremely well versed in the history of the Burmese kingdom and the various ancient capitals that lay in the vicinity of Mandalay. Susanna also speaks fluent Spanish and hopes to travel to Spain one day to hone her language skills further.
I asked Susanna why she had majored in Pali. She replied that she always was interested in the culture and heritage of her country. Additionally, she knew she wanted to work with people in the field of educating them about her culture, for instance as a tour guide. She saw Pali language as a means of doing that.
“What a brilliant idea!” I thought to myself. She had majored in something that was very specialized, where there will always be some demand for the knowledge, and where few people have training or expertise. This was a very different strategy from majoring in something broad like history, as I had done. When I finished college with a history degree, I had a broad education but no marketable skill or specialized expertise. Susanna’s college major, in contrast, provided her with specialized education which got her foot in the door in an in the employment in the niche she hoped to work in. Very interesting food for thought, in terms of choosing a college major, eh?
Myanmar (Burma) Day 6: Mandalay
On this day, we were pretty tired and would have preferred to sleep in a bit, but we had to be at the airport by 8:15 A.M. to catch our flight to Mandalay. Fortunately, Bagan is one of those tiny airports where a few planes park out back and there are few formal procedures, so we could leave our hotel by 7:30 and still arrive in plenty of time. To our surprise, when we arrived we learned that our flight had been canceled but we had been moved to an earlier flight on a different airline, so there was virtually no wait. Go figure. Our flight to Mandalay was short and noneventful, flying on a clear blue sky on a bright and sunny morning. The clear, blue sky in Myanmar was nothing short of wonderful after China’s smog.
Ah, what a wonderful contrast that was! Freedom for a few days from smog! When one considers the cost of development, pollution and long term health issues for a population ought to be one of those costs. Sure, China has lots of development but at what cost to the humans who must swim in this smog? I think of Sophie, who has lost both parents to cancer, I’ve heard of too many cases of throat cancer, and I’ve read of soaring rates of asthma and chronic respiratory illness. One of my expat friends works for a company that has its own doctor on staff here for the employees. That doctor told my friend that as long as the expat lives in China five years or less, they think the health effects will be “reversible”. What about the people who are born here, live here, and die in this type of pollution?
I’ve read that London smog was horrific during the height of the industrial boom there, and surely American cities also reached that apex as well, prior to enactment of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. But why can’t countries just now developing learn from the mistakes of those who preceded them? China’s attitude is, “You did it, so now it’s our turn.” But why would one want a turn at choking smog, soaring cancer statistics, over reliance on oil energy, or highways clogged with gas guzzling private vehicles? All it takes is the political and economic will to insist, “This $3 incremental cost for environmental control is going to built into the cost of our product.” Why undercut the worldwide rate by 5 Euros if you can protect your environment and undercut the rate by just 2 Euros? Because the difference, 3 Euros, is lining the pocket of someone rich at the expense of millions of people who must live in the filthy environment. Someone is paying it, and the person paying is the ordinary person. Similarly, China already has a phenomenal public transportation infrastructure. Why not capitalize on that asset and expand it, rather than abandon that investment for private vehicles dependent upon foreign, Sudanese, oil?
Well, I am not a policy maker and it seems the cycle of building progress on the backs of those who have no power will continue. We learned during our trip that plenty of capital investment is pouring into Myanmar for factories and sweatshops. I can say sweatshops because Myanmar is where Korean, Chinese, and other Asian countries are now investing to take advantage of cheap labor. I didn’t personally see any horrific working conditions while I was in Myanmar, but given what I’ve heard and seen about Asian concern for their workers, I have no doubt that they exist. And also, because I know “cheap” is relative.
In Mandalay, we visited a factory where men worked all day hammering with 10 pound sledge hammers to make gold leaf. I asked what they got paid per day. The answer was $3,000 Kyet per day. (The reason I take this place out of the category of places with horrid working conditions is that the men were allowed to rest when they got tired.) The current exchange rate is about 1,200 kyet per dollar. So these men were hammering with sledge hammers all day for less than $3 per day. I’d say that’s cheap labor. How much are those men paying for their food; what kind of housing do they live in? I think I’d stick with life on the farm, myself. Sure, it can be hard, but there’s usually enough to eat.
And there’s also the rub. How does one define what is a good life? Enough food, clean water, and medical care to stay healthy, warm clothing, heat and hot water, opportunity for education, books to read? Where does one draw the line? Progress is a modern concept. For most of history, a child has literally followed in the footsteps of the parent. Change is not inevitable, and the values supporting a peasant life need not be rejected, if one has the basic necessities of whatever comprises “the good life.” How would you, yourself, define “the good life”? Surely part of that definition, however, has something to do with freedom and self determination. One of the causes of instability and dissatisfaction in ancient Rome, according to one of my college history professors, was the fact that in an effort to curb inflation and “brain drain” to the cities, ancient Rome attempted to limit a son’s occupation to that of his father. It didn’t go over so well.
From my readings, I gather that both sides of the government in Myanmar are ostensibly committed to staving off development that interferes with the traditional lifestyle and culture of the country. I can’t say if that’s true or not, and to verify this idea I’d have to do further research. However, it seems to me that the development of the country is at a crucial stage where it still may be possible to retain an older, village lifestyle and yet launch the population into 21st Century quality of living where it comes to food, shelter, and health care. An example of the type of development which is along these lines is the country of Bhutan, where the monarch gauges his success by a measure called “Gross National Happiness”. It’s worth thinking about. As we drove through Myanmar, I observed a lifestyle that was reminiscent of stories I’ve been told by my parents and grandparents about what it was like to live in the Deep South of the USA during the early part of the 20th Century – a lifestyle that has mostly disappeared in my own country as a result of governmental policy decisions that favor larger economic enterprises; a lifestyle which the French have chosen to preserve through the means of their farm subsidies to small, family farms. For Myanmar, like France and Bhutan, it’s not too late to retain that traditional way of life.