Jul 2013

Asia, Blog


What Josh is Doing

Brigit and Bret lived in a modest house on Grand Canyon Avenue. A few bicycles accented the front porch, which overlooked the street and a front garden filled with mint, strawberries, lemongrass, and a peach tree. Brigit was the most fashionable of all of the scientists at work, always looking like she’d just stepped out of a scene in The Great Gatsby before ducking into the lab to analyze compounds in the mass spectrometer. Sometimes I’d swing by the house on my way to work to pick her up on our vintage Vespa wearing the leather shoes I bought in Italy. She wore a scarf to fend off the morning chill, and we’d zip away in a Euro-inspired carpool to work in the lumberjack mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Bret had a friendly smile, a firm handshake, and a knack for crafting lemon squares that could change your life; confections that made you question everything you ever knew about food, joy, religion, and the universe. Brigit and Bret comprised twenty two percent of our weekly dinner club. It was filled out by the Helders, the Franklins, and Josh.

Drifting through the mountains along the Burmese border in northern Thailand, Sheena and I were lost in a reverie. Sometimes when we drive it’s nice to let our minds wander, and when they wander they often go back home. We might pass someone riding a Vespa with their scarf whipping in the wind, and I wonder what Brigit and Bret must be doing at that particular instant. With our windows down, the mountain air wafted through the van just like it did back in Flagstaff. Mumford & Sons flowed from the stereo speakers, drowning out the low moan of our engine. A banjo riff brought me back two years in an instant to our beloved group of friends with whom we had shared our weekly dinners. It was Josh who had played the banjo.

Curtis, Mike and Josh were roommates. Curtis and Mike were brothers, hailing from Michigan. The first things you noticed about them were their maniacal smiles, and the fact that despite being two years apart, they look just like twins. Josh was from Maryland, had a compact frame and great posture, red hair. He played the banjo with reckless abandon and was in love with Tammy. We were all engineers at W. L. Gore & Associates, better known for their magical expanded polytetrafluoroethylene membrane called Gore-Tex. That’s how we came to know Curtis and Mike and Josh.

After a couple of days spent exploring the small border town of Mae Sot, Sheena and I pointed Nacho northward and began snaking through the mountains along Thailand’s border with Burma. For the first time since reaching Southeast Asia the air was fresh and cool. I held my arm out the window and let the breeze wash over it. As we rounded a bend we began to see indigenous people lining the roadside. Some carried baskets, while others pushed bicycles or walked with their children. In the meadow to the left of the road the jungle gave way to a thick tangle of makeshift wooden huts built on stilts with roofs made out of leaves. Food was being unloaded from a large truck. We peered through the trees and into the tangle of muddy paths between the homes, clothes drying on lines, women in vibrant sarongs tending to their children or cooking. A small boy rode his bicycle in circles in a clearing carrying his little brother on the back, and when he noticed I was watching he laughed and rode faster. This was a Burmese refugee camp.

When Burma gained independence in 1948, many of the hill tribes attempted to break away to form their own independent country. When the military took control of Burma they violently quelled these attempts, burning over 3,000 villages and attacking the minority tribespeople. Since then, over 700,000 indigenous minorities have fled the country, and many live in a series of nine refugee camps in northern Thailand. This was one of them. Many of the people living at this camp had been here for twenty years, and a new generation is being born in the camp, never having known a normal life.

In America, you don’t have to throw the stone very far to hit someone angrily ranting about some unthinkable atrocity being carried out beneath our very noses. The Republicans are killing health care! The Democrats want to take our guns! Marriage is between a man and a woman! The President is a Muslim! Breastfeeding in public is a crime against humanity! Driving through the refugee camp made us think about how embarrassingly frivolous most of our problems are.

The previous day while talking to a Burmese man, the topic of health care had come up. He had described how expensive procedures are relative to the income of the population, and how most low income Burmese don’t even understand the concept of health insurance. I found myself getting ready to say, “Oh yes, it’s similar in the United States…” but then I caught myself. Truthfully, I have no business complaining about health care to a Burmese refugee. In fact, very few of us have any business complaining about much of anything at all. Sometimes you just have to talk to someone who has fled their homeland due to legitimate fear of personal harm to put things into perspective.

In the late afternoon we turned off of the main road in search of a camping place. Our Garmin showed a winding appendage of a road taking off into the mountains and coming to a dead end, so we took it. The road pitched up at around a 25% grade, testing Nacho’s climbing legs. At the top of the mountain, the road turned downward and descended the far side through the jungle with equal steepness, whereupon we were deposited into a small indigenous village. We wove our way slowly past wooden huts built on stilts with roofs thatched in dry leaves, just like the refugee camp. Indigenous women walked along the road in tribal clothing, corncob pipes hanging from the corners of their mouths. We followed the road a few hundred meters to its end, where a meandering stream emerged from the wide, dark mouth of an enormous limestone cavern.

We crossed the river on foot and entered the cave. As daylight disappeared behind us we passed a group of local teens sitting in a circle in the sand next to the river in the dark. We explored for a half an hour, and reemerged from the cave into a torrential rainstorm. The view from the mouth of the cave and the rain against a jungle and river backdrop was unreal. Night settled on our camp as the bugs and frogs bellowed out a symphony from the natural amphitheater surrounding our van and heavy rain drops tapped out a rhythm on Nacho’s roof.

Sheena never had rhythm. We all intrinsically knew it, but had never spoken about it or assigned a label to it. It had been right there before our eyes the whole time, but it was Josh who had finally brought it to light. One evening after dinner at Curtis and Mike and Josh’s house, already having eaten dessert but not wanting to leave, our hosts broke out their instruments. Josh was already well versed in the banjo, while Mike and Curtis were learning to play the guitar and bass, respectively. They frequently played songs for us, and we took to calling them “The House Band”. Mostly because they all lived in a house, and they were a band.

On this occasion, The House Band wanted audience interaction, and as we settled onto the couches in the living room, Mike handed out the auxiliary instruments. Sheena and I were to play the egg shakers: basically little plastic eggs full of beads. Mike showed us an example of how to keep the background rhythm going with the shakers, and then picked up his guitar. The House Band began its rendition of Wagon Wheel, and Sheena and I began shaking our eggs.

“Whoa, whoa,” Josh said, stopping mid-verse. His voice had a gentle frankness. “What was that?” He was looking at Sheena.

“Umm…I’m shaking the egg,” Sheena said.

“Sheena, look. When we play the song, you go ‘chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak’, got it? Easy, just a simple up and down motion.”

“Okay, I’ll make the egg go ‘chick-a-chak‘,” Sheena said.

The House Band restarted its rendition of Wagon Wheel, and on our cue we began shaking. Sheena might as well have started the couch on fire.

“Okay, everybody stop. Wait, wait, wait – stop. Now Sheena, you’re supposed to be going ‘chick-a-chak, chick-a-chak’, but instead you’re going ‘chick-chick-chick-ch-ch-ch-ch-chak’, do you see?” He was speaking with the kind tone that a father might use to address his disappointment of a child.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any rhythm,” she said, and then surrendered her weapon of musical destruction.

Shortly before we left on our trip, The House Band dissolved. Curtis and Mike traded Flagstaff for Denver, moving there within a few months of one another. Brigit and Bret left a short time later for the chill and fog and high culture of San Francisco. Josh had decided to move back East to study infectious diseases and to marry Tammy. We gave him a stethoscope as a going away present (the one we bought after reading this guide) on his very last dinner club night. We didn’t want him to leave, even though we knew that we, ourselves, would be leaving in due time.

In the morning, Sheena and I were startled awake. The sun peeked through the window of Nacho’s pop top tent, and when my eyes focused I could see a herd of water buffalo right outside of our van rolling around in the mud puddles left by the previous night’s storm. Two or three buffaloes would roll around, legs in the air, radiating pure bovine joy as the muddy water coated their skin, and then they would move aside and make way for the next bathers. It occurred to me that it was a Thursday morning, and that most of my friends would be waking up to a very different agenda on this day. I rolled onto my back, inhaled the fragrant morning air, and thought about how lucky we were to be able to go to sleep near an indigenous village at the mouth of a cave, to wake up to bathing water buffaloes, to drive through refugee camps and freely drive out of them.

We packed up our camp, fired up the engine and made our way back toward the small village. Cool air filled the van, indigenous ladies smoked their pipes, a banjo riff floated from our stereo, and I thought to myself, I wonder what Josh is doing?

[grooveshark width=”580″ height=”50″ id=”38828935″ autoplay=”0″ style=”metal”]Little Lion Man by Mumford & Sons on Grooveshark

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Jul 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

Searching for a Piece of Burma

In the past I’ve mentioned my undying love for Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations. Just a few months ago he came out with a new show on CNN called Parts Unknown. He said that he accepted the offer because it would gain him access to places that American TV cameras rarely get to visit. Guess where the show debuted? Burma.

Bourdain said, “If we had come a year earlier, we would have been deported. Almost overnight, people there were free to say what they want. Press restrictions had been lifted. That was an extraordinary thing to witness.”

I thought about this particular episode as Brad and I skirted alongside the Thai and Burmese border. Besides Anthony’s show on Burma, the only other footage I had ever seen of the country was from a documentary called Burma VJ. This followed the disturbing story of the 2007 protests against the Burmese military regime. The smuggled footage clearly displayed the people’s frustration with their government’s censorship and control over them.

Today however, Burma is in the midst of reinventing itself. In just a short period of time things have changed quickly; censorship has stopped and the borders have opened. Despite the country’s claim to open borders, it is still not so easy to travel within the country. Currently the government has designated specific zones as “tourist appropriate”, leaving the remainder of the country absolutely off limits to the wandering eye of the foreigner. For us, given the restrictions to certain provinces, driving from East to West through the country to reach India would clearly be impossible.

So we couldn’t exactly get into Burma, but we could get pretty dang close. We stopped in the town of Mae Sot; the main point of entry for more than 180,000 Burmese refugees who have fled into Thailand to live and work in the region. These circumstances, as unpleasant as they may be, have created a mix of faces and culture unlike anything we had seen to date in Thailand.

Our first Burmese experience began with Bobo and Ma Yae. Bobo was a handsome Burmese with deep brown eyes, a wide jawbone and black tattoos which ran up his forearms and crept under his sleeves. At his side was Ma Yae, another native Burmese. She had shiny black hair that rested at her shoulders and was as cute as a button in her red collared shirt sprinkled with Mickey Mouse faces. In just a week’s time she’d be returning to Burma to attend her sister’s wedding.

Today, we followed the two of them down to the Y in the road and then right towards the Burmese market. We had signed up for a cooking class and step number one was hunting down the ingredients. Given that it was the morning time, the market was in full swing. As we moved from the outer streets inward, the paths transitioned into a high speed raceway. There were obstacles everywhere and I stumbled between them. The locals were smooth and fluid, weaving in and around each other. Bikes and motorcycles sputtered by, women carried platters of fruit on top of their heads and others crouched down next to their buckets of eels, fish and frogs, bins of steamed roaches next to mangoes, worms, and bags of rice. Under the overhangs of roofs packets of spices and prepackaged goods hung from strings and scattered about the tables were eggplants the size of peas, wing beans in bamboo baskets, bundles of holy basil, and everything else imaginable. Working the stands were men in coned hats, Indo-Burmese Muslim men in plaid sarongs, Karen tribal women, and Burmese natives with their faces brushed  in circular swirls, stripes and speckles with the yellowish-white paste known as thanaka cream.

This Burmese tradition has existed for centuries and serves as a cosmetic and a protectant from the sun. At the market it could be bought in paste or powder form, or in its most natural state as a piece of wood. To apply it, the thanaka wood is rubbed against a circular stone called a kyauk pyin and then a few drops of water are added to form the paste. It is then added to the face in whatever manner the person wishes to wear it. I was completely captivated by the uniqueness of this idea and could have easily spent the day just staring at faces. I was surprised to find that what I thought looked bizarre at first looked quite normal and beautiful by the end of the morning.

Halfway through the morning we stopped for intermission at a traditional Burmese tea shop. It was an atmospheric place: loud, busy, and filled with tiny tables and chairs. Once we settled in we were served a complimentary pot of plain green tea, always free and always bottomless at a Burmese tea shop. Next we ordered vegetable samosas and phyllo dough pastries and a round of lapae yea. This is a black tea mixed with a heavy dose of sweetened condensed milk, so much I might add that it sunk to the bottom of my cup like a thick white custard. Sweet like candy and delicious.

As we made our way out of the market, we watched a woman prepare a dozen or so betel leaves in an assembly line fashion. Brad had read about this very thing in a Paul Theroux book. The author had admitted to his hatred of the habit, complaining that the users were constantly spitting red juice everywhere. The thing is this is really popular stuff and people have been spitting it for the last 4,000 years throughout much of Asia and Oceania. It is an addictive stimulant that causes a warming sensation in the body and increased alertness and it has also been declared by The International Agency for Research on Cancer to be carcinogenic to humans.

So of course we were intrigued by this woman, who used her spatula to apply a paste of calcium to the leaves.  After covering the leaves in a sticky goo, she opened a half dozen calcium-smeared containers, reached in and sprinkled their contents on top of the leaves: whole cardamom seeds, clove, catechu, slices of betel nut and so forth. She then folded them over into bundles and handed them to us.

“If you start to feel dizzy after a minute or two, please stop and spit it out. Do not swallow it.” Bobo was clearly wanting to avoid any potential international health incidents. “Place the whole thing in your mouth. Chew on it and spit it out once you’ve released all of the juices and flavors from the inside. And please, if you start to feel dizzy, spit it out!

Brad and I each had one and so did Ma Yee.  She also took one to go, tightly wrapped and secured with a rubber band. And the flavor? It mostly just tasted like a leaf filled with toothpaste and a hint Indian spices. One was enough for us.

For the remainder of the afternoon we made an exquisite meal of potato dumplings, Mandalay noodle salad, Karen pumpkin curry, and lime basil juice. We learned new preparation and cooking techniques and enjoyed the results. Surprisingly the lime basil juice was the winner for the afternoon. In addition to these dishes, I had also made a special request to Bobo earlier in the day.

I had read that Burma is one of the only countries in the world where people not only drink tea but also eat the  leaves. They are eaten either as a pickled tea leaf salad or served in the center of a shallow dish (also pickled) along with fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut. I was eager to make the former and Bobo was willing to show me how.  We did a little bit of re-hydrating , crushing in the pestle and mortar, and then tossing the leaves with tomatoes, cabbage, fried nuts, and seeds. The resulting flavor was something entirely new. I loved it.  The tea leaves were pungent and spicy, mixing perfectly with the crunchy nuts and mild vegetables.

We enjoyed our meal at a picnic table behind the café. It was peaceful and serene and everything just felt good. A perfect afternoon. I wondered what would come of Mae Sot in the future. I had asked Bobo what the community was like here and if most people knew each other and his response surprised me.

“No, I do not recognize most of the faces here. People are always coming and going. This isn’t really anyone’s home. Now that things are getting better in Burma, many of the NGOs in town are starting to disappear. People are even beginning to return home”.

It was a little sad to think Mae Sot was changing so quickly, but more than anything it made me happy. People deserve to live with their families, live in peace, know their neighbors, and enjoy the sunrise and sunset from within their own country.


Squeeze the juice from two medium sized limes. Detach the leaves from 5 stalks of lime basil (this is important) and discard the stems and flowers. Put the lime juice, basil leaves, 3-4 tablespoons of liquid sugar, and 1 cup of water in a blender and mix well. With a strainer, run the juice through the filter and serve with ice!


Preparing the tea leaves: Rehydrate 2 tablespoons of dried green tea leaf with warm water for a few minutes. With a pestle and mortar, pound together the tea leaves, 4 small green chiles, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/3 teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and the juice of one lime. Set aside. In a small pan, roast or fry a ¼ cup mixture of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, and broad nuts (if you can find them). Set aside.  On a plate, add ¼ cup of finely shredded cabbage, ½ tomato thinly sliced, the tea leaf mixture, nut mixture, a pinch of salt and the juice from one lime.

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