Myanmar Then and Now-Part One


More than twenty years ago, I went to Myanmar when it was still called Burma.  I flew there from Katmandu.  Compared to the cool, crystalline mountain air of Nepal, the hot, moist, Burmese air felt stifling, thick.  Day one, we left the Inya Lake Hotel and traveled to downtown Yangon to purchase tickets to Pagan.  We never left Yangon because the first of many revolts against the military government started.  Everyone strongly opposed going there by the night train and the last plane headed that way had been shot down.  Personally, I was willing to take the risk but could find no one else willing to go with me.  Everyone was under a 6 pm to 6 am curfew.  Unexpectedly, hundreds of hotel guests were confined to the hotel and its grounds, thankfully rather expansive.  This unusual circumstances provided unexpected opportunities.   To accommodate feeding everyone dinner, the hotel staff asked guests to share tables.  I shared a table with a man from South Korea there to build a sport shoe factory, two women from Germany headed to a medication retreat, and a gentleman with an English accent.  We shared life stories except the “Englishman”.  His sharing seemed a little “off”.  Later, when the rest of us chatted and put together what little he shared, we decided perhaps he was an arms dealer.  One evening guests experienced the privilege of watching the guests for an elaborate Burmese wedding, complete with traditional wedding clothing.

Although clean and orderly, this “one of the best hotels in Burma” looked more like photos of Russian army barracks than the hotels to which most of the guests were accustomed and absolutely nothing like anything else near Yangon.  Few cars roamed the streets.  The most common vehicles were small pickup trucks in which the bed had been transformed into an open air van complete with seats and a cloth roof.  The populace exuded an air of dejection.  Those who bothered to save money saw it devalued to nearly nothing.  The once elegant, ornate buildings showed signs of disrepair and decay.  A country which was once the world’s largest exporter of rice was rationing it as well as gasoline.

Unless you sleep twelve hours a day, curfews present challenges.  What do you do with yourself for all those evening hours after 6 pm hits besides eat a leisurely dinner.  I walked the glorious hotel gardens repeatedly and became acquainted with the hotel gardener who spoke perfect English and whose father had attended Columbia University.  His roses were as tall as I am.  He asked me repeatedly, ” How does my garden measure up to modern standards?”  When I offered tp send him horticulture magazines, he told me they would be confiscated as evil, foreign influences.  Paddle boats lined the lake’s edges.  Guests could use them free but  guests were told not to go far out because we might get shot at.  The luxurious villas of the ruling military elite lay readily visible on the distant opposite shoreline.

During the day, everyone rushed out to make the most possible out of the 12 free hours.  Mainly, I recall an overwhelming sense of gold, glitter, and glass tiles reflecting the tropical light.  At first, it induced a feeling of slight nausea, so much sensory input I felt slightly sick.  But I adjusted.  As if scattered, glittery golden temples were not enough, there rose the Shwedagon Pagoda, 99 meters covered in gold, real gold.  I spent an entire day there, wandering its environs and still missed some of it. Saffron clad monks, vendors selling “sacred” items and snacks, nearly a city within itself,  old, originally  built in 1372 and 344 feet high, repeatedly rebuilt after earthquakes and foreign raids.  Impressive is an understatement.

If Burmese history and culture interest you, I recommend three fascinating novels:

To Save Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

The Glass Palace by Amitov Ghosh

All three focus on one or more of the ethnic groups that inhabit Myanmar and on their relationships with each other.  The latter two are historical novels and in particular Ghosh’s book provides a fascinating history of that part of Asia.

 

 

Blackwater Draw-Part Two


The ancients hunted here at the shores of a lake

nearly 12,000 years ago.  In 1929, an amateur

archeologist discovered an ancient spear

point lodged in bone.  I walk the mile long trail

down into the depths.   Caliche, gravel,

larger rocks strewn by millennia.  For

thousands of years Clovis, Folsom, and Portales

Man left remnants of their hunting life.

The scattered cottonwoods whisper in the wind,

timeless voices call me, beckoning.

Who were these people?

What did they look like?

Where did they come from?

In whose gods and goddesses did they believe?

Doubtless hunger drove them to this place of water

and plenty.  Columbia Mammoths, giant sloths, dire wolves,

saber toothed cats  gathered here for thousands of years.

The diggers found an obsidian spear head with a

bison whose horns spanned seven feet and

mammoths twice the size of elephants.

Saber toothed cats competed with these

ancient ancestors at this place, all driven by

hunger, thirst, and instinct.  I wonder how

these people overcame danger, fear?

I walk the mile long path, stand in the shade

of these cottonwood trees , read the signs that

tell me what diggers found at specific spots along the trail.

The cottonwoods whisper to me.  They

tell me ancient tales of hunger, strife, fear,

beauty, love, endurance.  I hear the ancient voices

calling.  They tell me ancient tales of woe, war,

weaponry, courage, and community.  My

skin tingles strangely in the summer heat.  Now

this land is dry, a desert, the water that sustained

teeming life evaporated in the crystalline air.

Twelve thousand years from now who will stand here?

Will this place exist?  Will someone wonder the meaning

of our bones, who we were, what we believed?

Blackwater Draw–Part One


Annually, I make a pilgrimage to this ancient place where people hunted on the shores of a lake nearly 12,000 years ago.  It continues to be the oldest evidence of human habitation in the Americas.  For a large part of the twentieth century it was a gravel pit.  The gravel mining created both positive and negative consequences.  Without it, the bones of giant bison, mammoths, dire wolf, saber toothed cat and camels might never have been discovered at all.  However, because the owners of the quarry refused to stop mining, some portions of the site were destroyed by big swoops of the excavator machines.  Frequently archaeologists worked simultaneously along with mining operations, continuing within sight of each other.    Various groups, including some private individuals, attempted repeatedly to buy the site to save its precious stash of bones, artifacts, and ancient wells.  The owners refused to sell.  Finally, in 1978, Eastern New Mexico University purchased the site and continues archaeological excavation there.  They also run the nearby museum adjacent to the university football stadium.

If you expect something wondrous and grandiose, you will be severely disappointed.  A small building houses a teensy museum, restrooms, a few sweat shirts and posters and books for purchase.  An individual sits by the door to take your meager entrance fee–at most five dollars–and answer questions.  These individuals explain they are majors in disciplines related to the site, archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, that sort of thing.  A simple gravel trail traverses the site and a smaller trail goes to an ancient well–16 have been found at or near the site–and to a dig inside a building where you can observe the layers unearthed, which group of people left which type of artifacts, and actual bones of mammoths, giant bison, and other animals from the end of the last Ice Age.

People react differently to such sites.  I always remain entranced, overwhelmed, reflective, thinking to myself, “I am walking where people walked and hunted and went about their lives more than 11,000 years ago.”  The most ancient evidence of people is labeled Clovis Man–Clovis, NM, is just up the road.  They never found human bones of these people here , just their spearheads stuck in the ribs and shoulders of mammoths which stood 15 feet at the shoulders.  The people who came later made a different type of spear, called Folsom points.  These people, Folsom Man, lived later by 1-2 thousand years.  Another site, called Folsom, is near the tiny town of Folsom, NM, farther north at the edge of the mountains.  This site is on private land and tours are available only twice a year.  Although I visited the town last year, I have not visited this site.  Other people arrived later and although the collection is smaller, their spearheads remain available for viewing at the nearby Blackwater Draw Museum on the main road between Clovis and Portalis, NM.

When I look at the list of animals who lived here at the end of the last Ice Age, I feel amazed because they include both camels and horses as big as our horses now.  Both of these became extinct as did the saber toothed cat with the humongous canine teeth and the dire wolf.  Giant sloths lived until modern times but nowhere near New Mexico.  How could all these animals live here?  It was wet and green then.  Until the last couple of decades, bodies of water of varying sizes have drawn animals and people to this area.  Giant fields of irrigated corn and dairy farms lowered the water table sufficiently to eliminate any evidence of water.  At the time of Clovis Man a large lake covered the site.  Later, during a 3000 year drought, people dug the ancient wells to reach water.  Because this remained the only place for hundreds of miles with a supply of water, people came.

The trail begins just to the northwest of the tiny building and goes along the top for a couple of hundred feet before it drops down into the gravel pit remains.  The gravel was below all the layers containing human artifacts and ancient animal bones so the pit is wide and deep.

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If your sight is good, you can read this.  The primary source of food for Clovis Man, giant bison and Columbian mammoths, came here for the water.  Archaeologists  theorize that hunters often killed these huge animals while they were in the water where it was more difficult for them to escape and move quickly.  In one place on the trail, evidence of a five bison kill complete with spearheads makes one think just how difficult and dangerous this hunting activity must have been.  I stand there, think about my own 5’4″ height, and wonder what it would be like to have a Columbian mammoth close to me.  Doubtless many died from injuries during such activities.

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The train meanders along the bottom of the gravel pit.  This year, plentiful rain grows abundant grass.  During the last several years, little rain has fallen as evidenced by all the dead trees and bushes scattered around the site.  Normally, this area is semiarid with less than 18 inches of rain per year.

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If spectacular scenery appeals to you, do not go here.  Most of the bones and artifacts were found in the layers at the sides of the pit.  As you walk the trail, markers indicate the location of findings.  Few human remains are found at such sites because these were not permanent settlement places.  Ancient peoples roamed the land in search of water and food.

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Signs, such as this along the trail, illustrate different places where specific bones and artifacts were found.  They also explain the different types of artifacts, their specific uses, and the history of the site.  Maps, like the one on this sign, help the viewer hone in on specifics in relation to where one is standing.  The photo illustrates archaeologists in action during site digs.

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Cliffs, like the one here, surround the site.  In these small cliffs each layer indicates a different age of human activity by not only the type of sediment but also by the type of artifacts and animal bones found.  Just beyond this particular cliff at the west edge of the site, irrigation pivots run in a huge corn field.  The grey at the bottom of the cliff indicates an immense pile of dead, dried, tumble weeds.  This is dry country.

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Approximately three fourths through the trail, the site mangers have erected several structures.  This one is the most primitive.  Others are modern with picnic tables and in one place I saw a giant sand box.  Guessing, I think it must be used to illustrate how one sifts through layers of soil to carefully remove spearheads, bones, pottery, etc.  This is the perfect place for a field trip, not too long, but full of geological and paleontological information.

I go here usually once a year.  If you ask me why, I may articulate something about how it has the oldest artifacts and bones found in North America.  The real reason??  I am not quite sure.  This place fascinates me, connects me with something ancient and wondrous, something undefined and mysterious.

The Land in Love with Guns


In the United States firearms kill approximately 15,000 individuals per year.  In Britain, Australia, and Canada, the average is 350 per year.  Spain’s rate is even lower.  In Germany, it is less than 800.  A young person here dies about every 4 ½ hours, shot dead.  The US murder rate is 19.5, nearly 20 times higher that the next 22 richest countries.  In the 23 richest countries combined, 80 percent of all gun related deaths are in the US; 87 percent of children killed are shot by guns here.  In the last 45 years, bullets killed more than one million people in the US.

Gun sales are big money.  More than a dozen hand guns are sold per minute.  One survey indicates that one out of every four US homes possess a gun; another survey says 39 percent.  However, most guns are owned by only a small proportion of the population, gun “collectors” who own an average of seven weapons per person.  Guns are cheap here and bullets even cheaper, about 50 cents each.  The Mexican government contends that our cheap guns help fuel the dreadful violence there which then overflows to here.

In spite of all this, the US murder rate is the lowest in more than 45 years.  The NRA claims more guns equal less violent crime.  The NRA contends that the lower crime rate is the result of less strict gun laws and more people owning guns.  Nevertheless, mass murder occurs on a regular basis.  We mourn, we lament, but nothing changes.

Eventually, another mass murder occurs and the cycle repeats itself.  Why?  Who or what is responsible?  What can be done?  Will more restrictive gun laws help or hinder?  Debates continue; opposing views and answers abound, but the cycle continues.  Will it ever change?

I wrote the above after the last mass murder event.  Nothing changed.  Now the conversation appears more strident, more active.  Apparently, the mass killing of children is more heinous, more scary than the mass murder of adults even if the adults are young.  The NRA advocates armed guards at schools.  How will that prevent mass killings at movie theaters, at malls, at churches, on the street, e.g. the three murders this week in Pennsylvania?

Australia was another country in love with guns, but after a mass killing there, they changed their collective mind.  They enacted strict gun control laws for assault weapons and ammunition.  Could that work here?  I think not.  This is a country in love with guns because the right to own a gun symbolizes  what is perceived as individual rights.  This is a country where personal liberty remains far more important than community safety and social justice.  Until that changes, mass murders will continue.