A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE FAR EAST:
SUNRISE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
BY CARMEN GRAU
TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH BY BRENDAN RILEY
On July 26, devotees of top-notch travel writing will be able to read my new translation of Sunrise in Southeast Asia, Spanish writer Carmen Grau’s bestselling account of her adventurous journey through Indo-China and beyond. Departing Barcelona, Spain on January 2, 2000, Carmen spent the first seven months of the new millennium on a challenging personal, spiritual, and intellectual journey of cultural exploration.
Using Bangkok as her jumping off place, Carmen visited all the countries of the Indochinese peninsula––Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma––and then moved on to Malaysia, as well as Sumatra and Java in Indonesia. She also made brief visits to Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore.
While visiting many cities and famous destinations Carmen also made the point of traveling slowly, often trying to leave the beaten path, and have close, personal encounters with the people, languages, and cultures of these lands that remain, as she describes in vivid detail, mysterious, exotic, baffling, and enchanting.
Her rich, extensive, and engaging travelogue describes her time in more than 60 different locations, cycling the streets of Vientiane, walking through the quiet Burmese countryside, learning to scuba dive in Malaysia and make traditional wood carvings in Sumatra, and often venturing to unfrequented, out of the way places. Carmen’s frank, open-minded, good humored narrative of her ups and downs along the road will surely inspire readers to challenge themselves to find the courage to depart from familiar, comfortable places and assumptions to discover the heart of humanity in the world at large.
I’m delighted to feature here an excerpt from Sunrise in Southeast Asia in which Carmen recounts her own journey along the fabled road to Mandalay to partake in the great water festival of the Burmese new year.
by Carmen Grau
We left Inle Lake one morning around eight o’clock carrying a traditional Shan bag with the hotel’s name embroidered on it, which the friendly fellows from the Queen Hotel had given us as a gift—luckily for Mark, the white letters were not too flashy and his masculinity was unthreatened—a stupendous gift which was going to prove very useful.
We traveled by covered pickup truck to Meiktila. Mark rode sitting on the roof. I also wanted to ride on the outside, hanging on and standing up, or sitting on the roof, with the men, but as much as I insisted, they didn’t let me. I had finally found a case in which the Burmese were not going to yield to my wishes blindly: being a woman I had to sit inside and below. Buddhist laws dictate that a woman can never be positioned higher than a man—especially if he’s a monk—so that he doesn’t feel insulted. In contrast to my nature, I had to swallow all my fury and bite my tongue. After all, I was not visiting any country to impose my laws upon them, however stupid theirs seemed to me.
It was our plan that day to make it to Mandalay, the cultural and artistic center of Burma, and the best place to celebrate Thingyan, the Water Festival. During the festival days Thagyamin, king of the nats, descends to earth to take account of humans’ good and bad actions. He returns to heaven on the third day, marking the start of the Burmese new year. Water is the main feature of the festival, symbolizing the cleansing of sins and bad luck from the year that is ending, and the welcoming of the new. In practice, water-throwing has turned into an excuse for simply having fun, as we would soon find out.
According to everyone we asked, all forms of transportation throughout the country would stop running during the festival. In fact, we were traveling by pickup truck because the buses from Inle to Mandalay had already been out of service for two days and would be for a whole week. The schools, shops, many restaurants, agencies, post offices and all public administration were set to close. The whole country was going to be paralyzed, and for that reason the sooner we got to Mandalay the better.
Nevertheless, we didn’t make it. We didn’t suspect that for us the celebration would begin one day early, on the way to Meiktila, one of the toughest legs of the journey. Not only were we packed into the pickup truck like sardines with thirty other people—although Mark was up on the roof in the open air—but we ended up completely soaking wet. People came out onto the highway to douse us with buckets of cold water as we drove by. And that was the main fun of the festival: a great big water fight. Nobody—except the monks, who were considered untouchable—was free from getting soaked, and we, as foreigners, made a doubly amusing target.
With the first bucket of water we laughed, but after three hours the trip became unbearable. The plastic bags hung up as curtains at the windows did no good at all. Then I recalled the people I had seen that morning, wearing raincoats in sunny weather. I had privately laughed at them, figuring them to be overreacting. Of course then I hadn’t known how seriously the Burmese take their holidays, but this was only the beginning. The worst was waiting for us in Meiktila. Shivering with cold from so much water, we decided to spend the night there.
We set out in search of the Precious Inn, taking quite a walk around the town because we didn’t have a map or anyone to guide us correctly from our starting point. And so we had to cross through the central market, where an army of children was set to give us another good soaking with garden hoses and buckets of water. The day had taken us completely by surprise; we hadn’t expected the festival to be so lively or there to be so much water. Unarmed and toting our backpacks, which prevented us from running, our good mood was diminishing dangerously fast.
At noon the next day we reached Mandalay. In the pickup truck that dropped us off in the city center I witnessed a scene that enraged me.
Mark was again riding on the roof, which only served as a bitter reminder to me that I couldn’t travel that way. Inside the lain-ka there were about ten people, five on each side facing one another. Sitting next to me was a woman about my age, and to her left a young man of about twenty, who was the only male inside the vehicle, apart from a little boy sitting on the woman’s lap. The man was verbally abusing the woman. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but his menacing tone was unmistakable. At first he tried to keep his voice down, but as he kept scolding her, he kept raising his voice, glaring scornfully and shaking his finger at her. The other women just sat there staring into space, hiding their emotions, if they felt anything at all. None of them batted an eyelid when the woman began to shed big tears, her eyes also staring straight ahead, looking at nothing. The young fellow’s voice could now be heard loud and clear; nobody else spoke. The woman didn’t even bother to wipe away her increasingly abundant tears, not even when he began to jab the back of her neck. The little boy on her lap didn’t seem to notice anything.
My disbelieving eyes went back and forth from the couple to the impassive faces of the other women. I felt my blood boiling in my cheeks. I couldn’t contain my anger any longer: I was going to intervene.
Just then the truck made one of its stops and the three of them abruptly got off. As we drove away, I watched them through the glassless window behind me. After two more stops, when it was our turn to get off, I said to Mark, “I’m not traveling in a line-ka ever again in this country.”
That meant that we would have to stay in Mandalay for at least five days, until the buses started running again. Mark understood that I was serious and not about to change my mind. If he wasn’t willing to travel my way, we would have to go our separate ways.
Later I found out that from a list of 174 countries, Burma was ranked 131st on the United Nations’s 1998 Gender-related Development Index (GDI), which considered such key elements as education, health, employment levels, and household income. Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were not far off from Burma, while Thailand was ranked much higher at 40th and Malaysia 45th. However, the average rate of disposable income for a Burmese woman was at forty-two percent, higher than in countries like Canada (ranked number one overall), the United States, France, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, and many others, including some Scandinavian countries, not to mention Spain. Also, the average rate of disposable income for women in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was higher than all these countries. (Tanzania held the world record, with a disposable income rate for women at forty-seven percent, far above the rate for men, at thirty-three percent.) The illiteracy rate for adult females was not much different from that for males (eleven percent), in a country where any type of education and profession are within equal reach for both sexes. In fact, before the government ordered the universities closed in 1996, more than half the students were women. In many other social and economic aspects, Burmese women are considered equal to men, both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, Burmese women are expected to be demure, discreet, quiet, and unopinionated. According to the Burmese writer Saw Myat Yin, “Burmese women are characteristically shrewd and practical, but do not make pretensions towards intellectual matters. […] Women tend towards the telling of anecdotes and practical matters, such as recipes and discussions about problems with children and property matters. […] Their role is supportive and complementary rather than in competition. […] If they accept a role a step behind their menfolk, they do so freely and willingly. […] Women also tend to obtain high marks at college by dint of sheer hard work.”
The scene when we arrived in Mandalay was spectacular. Along 26th Street, which runs for more than a mile along the southern side of the immense Fort of Mandalay, people seemed to have gone mad. Amid a frenzy of traffic packed with bicycles, motorcycles, and people on foot, the jeeps and trucks filled with drunken, soaking-wet teenagers stood out. The air was filled with the incessant din of joyous shouts and honking horns. Raised wooden viewing platforms had been set up around the entire fort. Upon them dozens of girls dressed in identical sexy outfits were in charge of watering down the crowd with powerful fire hoses. Meanwhile, the pounding house music that had the young Burmese possessed, though already passé in the West, poured out from various loudspeakers set up throughout the whole city: Boom, boom, boom, boom, I want you in my room, spend the night together, together in my room!
All the youngsters in the country must have been gathered there. We ran into a few we had met on the trip from Meiktila, who greeted us effusively when they recognized us. During those days, cultural impositions were cast aside, and the manner in which everyone behaved and enjoyed themselves made me think that young people are basically the same everywhere in the world, and there is no government capable of changing that. They drank from ten in the morning until seven at night, they danced out in the street under the streams from the fire hoses, and for a few days they dressed as they pleased: with tight pants, t-shirts, and platform shoes, following the latest fashion as the rest of young people around the world were doing. Everyone was fully clothed, no doubt about that; it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to step out into the street in a bathing suit, but that was perhaps the only thing about their behavior that could be considered inhibited. The men—young ones and not so young—didn’t show the slightest bit of reserve with the women, and in my case it made no difference to them that Mark was walking by my side. They shouted at me from jeeps or trucks. Sometimes they were words of endearment, like “I love you!” but more frequently the greeting was “Hey, fuck you!” followed by shrieks of laughter. One day when we found ourselves caught in a crowd, one of them even went so far as to give me a slap on the bottom. But apart from a few startling moments like these, the general atmosphere was sensational. Everyone seemed happy, and the water gave people the perfect excuse to interact.
When we went out to eat lunch that first day in Mandalay, children in the streets saw us as the perfect targets, but now we weren’t carrying our backpacks, and we could flee or defend ourselves as necessary. Mark had an advantage because the girls usually went after him and the boys came after me. Their preferred weapons were enormous squirt guns that fired a long stream of water from a safe distance. The girls, however, especially the smallest ones, came running up with little containers spilling over with water. Sometimes they did it so carefully that they fell into their own trap: we let them get close enough to be able to turn their own containers on them. This left them with such an expression of surprise that it made us split our sides laughing.
Water bottles were the most common weapon, but the most lethal ones were buckets of ice water and hoses, from which there was no escape. On all the sidewalks there were big water tanks which people used to supply themselves.
Before finding an open restaurant we were soaked again and when we went back to our room at mid-afternoon we felt like we had frogs in our shoes, just like the day before. Before going back out again we prepared ourselves well. Mark wisely left his camera in the room. I wrapped mine in several plastic bags, like everything we were carrying. But not even that protected it completely, and after two days it died. Luckily, a change of batteries and the dryness in the room brought it back to life, but the soaked film cartridge was ruined and I lost all the photos that I had taken at Inle Lake and during the Water Festival. They would have provided excellent proof of the madness of those days.
Apart from our methods for protection, we bought squirt guns and went out ready to attack without mercy, including against unarmed people. The ideal thing was to aim for their eyes. That distracted the victim, thus permitting a second attack with the water bottle. But an unwritten rule seemed to say that if the aggressor managed to dump his bottle on someone, he then had to gamely accept that the victim unloaded on him.
So, we spent our days in Mandalay on high alert, constantly sopping wet and getting sprayed with water. Not until the festival was over did we notice the stress we had been feeling, faced with the danger of going out in the street. The only moment when we were able to relax was when it got dark, when everyone set their weapons aside and regathered their strength to resume the fight the following day. Then we changed into dry clothes and went out to dinner, alternating between Bamar, Chinese, and Indian cuisine. Afterwards, we usually visited an ice cream parlor called Nylon, which had a terrace and was always full. Their ice creams, milkshakes, and lassis, served in every possible flavor, were unbeatable.
Sunrise in Southeast Asia
By Carmen Grau
Translated by Brendan Riley
Available on Kindle from Amazon July 26, 2015
Carmen Grau was born and grew up in Barcelona, Spain. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Barcelona and a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Providence College, R.I. She writes in English, Spanish, and Catalan. She has traveled extensively and lived in different countries like the USA, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia. In the year 2000 she set out on an unplanned journey around several Southeast Asian countries, and a year later she wrote Amanecer en el Sudeste Asiático (Sunrise in Southeast Asia), the number one ebook in all travel categories on Amazon Spain in 2012 and 2013. In 2004, she wrote the novel Trabajo temporal. In 2013, she published a second travelogue, Hacia tierra austral, which tells her journey on board some of the most legendary trains in the world, from Barcelona, Spain to Perth, Australia. The novel Nunca dejes de bailar is her most recent work, published in February 2015. She writes regularly in her blogs: Me llamo Pendiente, Inde Pendiente, in Spanish, and Raising Children in Freedom, in English. Apart from writing and traveling, Carmen has many other passions like cooking, walking, and reading; most of all, spending time with her two unschooled sons, Dave and Alex. She is a child advocate and a firm believer in the right of children to self-education. When not traveling, Carmen and her two sons live in Dunsborough, a small town in the South West of Australia.