Saturday, March 7, 2009


Once again the tech-whizzes at the local email place in Rangoon have patched me up so I can try to post. Why bother? you might think, since tomorrow I am due to fly to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where email etc is very accessible. But it seems so wonderful to be able to blog from here that I want to take advantage.

Just heard that Beyond the Great Wall has been nominated in the International category for an IACP cookbook award. Great news! But at the same time of course it feels a little remote right now...

I got back late yesterday from the extraordinary town of Myitkyina, in northern Burma. It's amazingness doesn't lie in its architecture, for it was mostly flattened by US bombs aimed at dislodging the Japanese, who had successfully invaded Burma all the way to the north by 1943. Instead, of course it lies in the human landscape, a mix of Kachin (itself a broad category that covers different cultures), Shan (ditto), Chinese, Burmese, people from many parts of the Indian subcontinent including Gurkhas from Nepal, and I am sure others...

The town sits on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River, low with large sandbanks in this season. There are hills in all directions. People arrive by boat and motorcycle and bicycle and trishaw, and on foot to come to the busy market on and near the high river bank in central Myitkyina. I can't write about the food right now: I don't know enough, for one thing, and for another, my head is still too freshly dazzled by it all still. Later, later!

On my last day there I met a Kachin man who is one of the seven remaining Kachin veterans of the BFF, Burmese Frontier Forces, who fought a guerilla war against the Japanese with the help of a few British and also some gurkha troops. He is now eighty-four years old, lean and straight as he rode up on his motorcycle, with swift sure movements and a very clear brain. He said he'd just been recruited when the British retreat from Burma began, and so his war was entirely fought in the hills, while the towns were occupied by the Japanese. It's impossible to imagine what all that was like. I could just admire his liveliness and sense of self-respect, and his tenacity.

Later that day I got a ride to the airport with a man named Mohammed Khan, whose father had travelled from Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, to Dibrugarh, in Assam. He'd begun with the British Army, but then was passed along to the US 10st Battalion to be a driver of supplies as the Burma Road was being built. The jeep we were driving in had been his father's jeep, still in lovingly good repair all these years later. Mr Khan's father died only two years ago, aged ninety.

When I think of these stories, brief glimpses of another, very difficult time, it makes me realize that the most precious thing we have are the stories, the shared web of experience. Time passes, people and place grow and pass away, but we keep them alive, and keep alive our sense of connection to them, by telling each other stories, weaving narratives for ourselves, whole cloth in which to clothe ourselves and our children.

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