$14.95One Man’s Raucous Romp Down the Road of Food, Passion and Adventure
ISBN 1-885211-70-8 296 pages
It is about one a.m. on January 1, at the beginning of a new century. A fire crackles on the beach next to the thatch-roofed Cafe Almeja. I am the only man in town wearing a tuxedo, and likely the only one barefoot at the moment, wriggling my toes in the sand. The Baja California town of Mulege (MOO le hay) has just observed the passing of the year, in typical form. There was no countdown to midnight. At about ten minutes after, somebody noticed the time and announced it to all the revelers. Then, as we do every year in this faraway little town, we embraced each other, drank a toast, and carried on. Some of the folk have gone to the plaza where the local mariachi band will play and people will dance till dawn. They will eat and drink. They will talk and laugh. For those who wish to sing, the band will play their requests. And they will dance and dance till they can dance no more.
I contemplate the glowing fire. In the past people thought of fire as a thing—something sacred and mysterious, often worshipped as the manifestation of a god. Today we know that it is not a thing, but a process. The reduction of compounds to elemental carbon. The dancing flames are merely the release of gasses, so hot that they glow. All very simple, really. Easily explained. And yet it still has the power to evoke the sacred and the mysterious. And how not? Without this process there could be no life, only cold nothingness. Most of what is in the universe is fire. Just look up in the sky, day or night, to the nearest star or to those farther away. Or look inward, into our bodies. A chemical fire, quite literally, burns. And how should we not burn? We are stardust. And in us deeper still lies the passion. That which we say burns. And how should it not? Without passion we are as cold as the dead.
One of my passions is this very place. This magnificent peninsula that we often call “the Baja.” Its deserts are beautiful and dangerous and full of mysteries and stories. Its seas are abundant. Over five hundred species of plants and animals are unique to it. Its history is tortured and full of brave hearts and big dreams and mighty failures. This little town of Mulege is the only recurring mark on my calendar. The week from Christmas to New Year’s Day usually finds me here, though I come here whenever else I can. Its trans-peninsular highway, twisting for a thousand miles, is the symbol of my other great passion: the road. The great, long road to all the world. It is where I live, in the fuller sense of the word. It is where stories are most alive. It has led me around the planet several times. I’ve followed it down dank alleyways and up grand boulevards; into mansions and into huts; into the company of the sacred and the profane; and into the innumerable stories that make up my life. Stories of Baja, and stories of far away. For these things my passion never cools; and for this I am always alive. The fire never dies. I always feed it anew.
Guillermo, who owns the Cafe Almeja, where we have observed the passing of the year, has hobbled out on his crutch and his one leg to the fire. One of his girls follows him with a chair. The other with a bottle of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge. He throws back his blond hair and says, “Ricardo, you know that my grandfather was French. And so I always keep a bottle of this for a special occasion. I’ve had this one for six years. Now I open it not for the new year, but because of the honor you do me in wearing such finery in my humble restaurant.” Who could not help but smile? And I have indeed worn it to honor him and the town. This is a country where people still dress up, rather than down. It says something to wear nice clothes. And my black and white has spoken well for me.
Others in our party are bringing chairs to the fire. For this is going to be a night of stories. In this desert there are no theaters or amusement parks, or much else in the way of modern entertainment. But there have always been stories to tell. To be listened to and savored, and told over again, the way one might play a favorite song over again, and once in a while interpreting it differently.
Guillermo pops the cork and pours the mirthful wine. “You start, Ricardo,” he says as I sip the bubbly stuff. The taste arouses the Muse. I cannot remember all the wines I have tasted, but I know that the best ones are those that are bound up in stories. The three others at our fire speak some English, but Guillermo speaks none. I speak what I call “kitchen Spanish.” I get by, though I take no prize for erudition. But I can describe the sea and the sky. And I know the words for death and hope.
As the cheerful fire crackles here on the beach I recall another kind of fire, one that burned within the clouds, and on the water, and in souls. And the story is a fitting one for this moment of transition, where one epoch ends and another begins.
Chapter 1 — Defeat
Chapter 2 — Heat
Chapter 3 — Poetry
Chapter 4 — Light
Chapter 5 — Victory
Chapter 6 — Excess
Chapter 7 — Through the Looking Glass
Chapter 8 — The Feast of Fatima
Chapter 9 — New Delhi Girl
Chapter 10 — My Holy Grail
Chapter 11 — Murderer’s Eggs
Chapter 12 — Death’s Journeyman
Chapter 13 — The Perfect Punch in the Face
Chapter 14 — All at Sea
Chapter 15 — Reconciliation
Chapter 16 — Brotherhood
Chapter 17 — The Crowded Hour
Chapter 18 — Games
Chapter 19 — Male of the Species
Chapter 20 — Longing
Chapter 21 — Mr. Disguise
Chapter 22 — Irony
Chapter 23 — Marilyn
Chapter 24 — Test
Chapter 25 — Testosterone
Chapter 26 — Deirdre
Chapter 27 — Failure
Chapter 28 — Pictographs
Chapter 29 — Vengeance
Chapter 30 — Gratitude
Bruce Harmon, myself, and our fifteen-year-old pedicab driver/guide, Din Tun, lingered in the small amphitheater near the grand market of Mandalay in the heart of Burma. Attendants were snuffing the red and gold paper lanterns one by one, and the women of the classical dance troupe were gathering up bits of costume jewelry and swaths of silk. The audience had melted away into the night, leaving behind a faint scent of the sandalwood paste that all the women wear on their cheeks as sunscreen, makeup, and perfume. All else was open starry sky and stillness.
“Go now?” Din Tun asked. “Time…late.”
“Yes,” I said. “Time to leave Mandalay. It was a long time journey getting here, Din. But now it’s time to go.”
“Go,” he nodded. “Come back Mandalay? Sometime?”
“Ha. That’s what Kipling says in his poem, you know.”
“Kipling, yes,” he nodded and smiled indulgently, knowing and caring nothing of the imperial poet. But he knew that Kipling held something special for me. Din had taken me to Mandalay Hill, the great temple complex with its “thousand steps” heavenward. We took off our shoes at the bottom of the hill and mounted the steps that go straight up the steep slope like a causeway. Reaching the top of the stairs and the uppermost temple that crowns the hill, I paused to catch my breath and mop my brow. Then while Din watched in bemusement I shinnied up a drainpipe, clambered onto the roof, and mounted the peak of the highest gable. Far below me lay the green and abundant Mandalay Valley, rich with the season’s planting. Surrounded by abrupt hills it calls to mind a huge serving vessel, for such it is. Looking down into it and into the town I recited aloud Kipling’s poem, “The Road to Mandalay,” for it was he as much as Din that had brought me to this high point.
Where the best is like the worst
Where there ain’t no ten commandments
And a man can raise a thirst.
For the temple bells are callin’
And it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein pagoda
Lookin’ lazy at the sea.
Many of my travels in the East have been inspired by the writers who preceded me. Kipling is high among them. Though he wrote from another century and another land, the experience of the soldier or sailor in the Orient is universal. He speaks to me as clearly and as currently as though he were reporting directly to me about his most recent voyage, patrol, or evening in a tavern. Kipling’s poems have always been a compelling call echoing through time and space, through mind and imagination. My sailings would never take me to Burma. As a navy man I would never call at the ports of Rangoon or Moulmein. Yet the power of poetry is such that Kipling made it necessary for me to see the land of Burma, and the city of Mandalay.
But it was not an easy necessity to fulfill, because in the late twentieth century a clique of generals, led by Ne Win, with xenophobic and hermitic leanings and a vaguely leftist vocabulary, took over the gentle land of Burma. They closed the borders, shut out the world, and embarked upon an ill-defined, and very slow, journey down “the Burmese path to socialism.” It was a unique enterprise, whose successes have never been tabulated. Had they been, few would have had the interest to read the slim record. Burma became a place where nothing ever happened. No news issued from the capital of Rangoon because no news occurred. The nation’s once lively trade dropped off to the barest trickle. Journalists, travelers, and geographers showed no interest. The generals liked it that way.
Burma is now a land of echoes of things past. So many things and places are not what they are, but shadows and provocative suggestions of what they were. The generals have held the land in stasis for so long it seems that time stopped when the British Empire departed. Auto manufacturing is nonexistent and imports so few that the most common motor vehicles on the roads are 1940s vintage Willys jeeps. A native parts industry, scrap metal, and brilliant mechanics keep them going. The mechanics make housecalls, and even road calls. A team of them will travel for two days by boat, train, or bullock cart to reach a broken-down jeep or truck. Arriving on the scene, these consummate masters of their trade can effect a complete overhaul using only the tools they carry and parts they cannibalize or fashion from tin cans and old tires. For such a job they might receive twenty-five dollars.
The trains in Burma are slow. The airplanes rarely fly. The warehouses, offices, and houses of trade the British built are all in a general state of disrepair with peeling paint. Nothing happens to make it better. Nothing seems to happen to make it worse. Nothing happens. The generals like it that way.
But even generals can become desperate for cash. When nothing happens in the economy, nothing comes to the taxman. Tourist dollars are needed to make up the loss. Visas can still be difficult to get, and they might not last long. But we got ours, and I had finally arrived in Mandalay. Bruce and I had landed in Rangoon from Bangkok and immediately departed for the old royal capital on the Irrawaddy. And nearly all that I hoped to find, I found: the beauty, the ease, the history and culture. It is a dusty town of memories. Everywhere are tantalizing hints of what was, and what might be again on that near day when the last general dies. When the last salute is fired. When the last flag is furled and the warless warriors are no more.
I found everything I wanted with one exception: the food. It’s almost impossible to find a complete, well-made Burmese meal! The restaurants in the city are all either Chinese or Indian. They might offer the odd Burmese dish, but seemingly only as a nod to the dominant culture. The occasional market food stall offered something vile and unfit for healthy palates, and while they called it Burmese I felt sure it was slander. I had read about Burmese cookery. I had spoken to knowledgeable people about it. But I had been warned: “There aren’t many Burmese restaurants in Burma. If you want real Burmese food, it’s best to get yourself invited home to dinner.”
I believe we cannot know a people, or claim to have truly visited any land without experiencing some of its arts. But painting and sculpture can be confusing; literature needs translating and explicating; most of the other arts need some kind of introduction. But cookery is comprehensible by all. Even the most untutored wanderer, with a willing palate and a passionate curiosity, can acquire at the table an intimate knowledge of any land and its people. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” wrote Brillat-Savarin. Well, it’s time.
So, from Mandalay we planned to travel by riverboat, and somewhere along the river, somehow, I would get myself invited home to dinner.
We climbed into Din’s pedicab with all our gear and rolled through the night across town to the booking office to pick up our boat tickets. Taking our leave of Din, he asked, “You give me a present?” Everybody we met in Burma wanted a “present.” Not anything of value necessarily, but a souvenir, something of that outside world that was forbidden to them by the generals. Anything manufactured, anything of cultural significance, anything personal was a rich gift to the Burmese. In the market we found that our property was more valuable than our Burmese money. We each bought beautiful hand-woven cotton blankets. Bruce paid for his with a Daffy Duck t-shirt; I got mine for a collapsible umbrella. The merchant seemed to be afraid he had cheated us. On departing Mandalay we gave our guide a brass belt buckle. His eyes shone like the metal itself. Din Tun took his treasure, mounted his pedicab, and rode away.
“I still wish his name were Din Gunga,” I said to Bruce. “It would have been perfect on government forms.”
We turned toward the river. High clouds had rolled in and the resulting darkness was so profound and thick that it seemed to have texture. It swirled and engulfed like a black tar fog. I half expected it to feel gooey. As we approached the docks the road narrowed to a sinuously snaking alley with dark, somber shapes of decrepit buildings squatting on either side. I said to Bruce, “Keep your eyes and ears open. If there’s one thing I learned in all my years as a sailor it’s that a darkened waterfront is not a very salubrious place.”
“You wouldn’t want to take a date there.”
“Could be. Why don’t you go first.”
Neither of us considered my remark remarkable. Bruce is a good man with his fists. We originally met in the boxing ring when we were both amateur pugilists with a California athletic association. Our first meeting was attended by flurries of lefts and rights, one small shiner (his), two headaches, and one very bloody nose (mine). We became instant friends. Neither of us compete anymore, but Bruce continues to work out, spar regularly, and keep his fighting weight. I think about it a lot.
Bruce’s keeping in top form has come in handy. He once bounced a bothersome Iranian fellow from the kickboxing ring in a nightclub in Pattaya Beach, Thailand. The crowd went delirious and started chanting “USA, USA!” The manager was grateful enough for Bruce’s excellent service to pay him a fighter’s purse and offer him a job. During a trip to China, Bruce coldcocked an armed mugger with a one-two combination worthy of the great champions. The bad guy hit the pavement like a sack of bricks. “Let’s boogie,” Bruce said. And we did.
And so in Mandalay I told Bruce, “You walk on ahead. I’ll see no one comes up on you from behind.”
“Thanks. I guess.”
We came to a point where we could smell the river and hear it lapping against the pilings of the wharves. A large, dark shape loomed ahead, but I couldn’t tell if it was a building or a river boat. I remembered my seaman’s training: when you’re on lookout duty on a dark night, objects are difficult to see if you look directly at them. If you look at them askance, observe them obliquely, they come into better view. So I shifted my gaze first to port, then to starboard, and the shape revealed itself as a flat-bottomed, two-decked, Mississippi-type riverboat. Screw-driven. “Is it ours?” Bruce asked.
“Dunno,” I said, slipping off my pack. You watch the stuff and I’ll go see.” I felt around gingerly with hands and feet for a gangway. Finding it, I went aboard and ascertained that it was ours. Returning to Bruce I said, “You’re going to love this boat.”
“Because of the story you’ll have when it’s all over.”
“Is it that bad?”
“Yes. But only trouble is interesting. Come on.”
The two open decks of the boat were crisscrossed with painted lines that marked out spaces six feet by four feet. Each space was occupied by a family: parents, children, baggage and all. In that space they would eat, sleep, and while away the time for the next two to four days, depending on their destinations.
We found that there were no spaces left. Both decks were thickly carpeted with humans. Arms, legs, and torsos seemed all tangled together into a single, massive, quivering, unevenly woven blanket of flesh and clothing. Smells of fuel oil, bodies, babies, and onions drifted about the deck in currents. Snores, murmurs, grunts, and mumbling floated up from the flesh blanket. There was no place for us even to set foot, let alone lie down.
Out of the gloom on the far side of the deck a piercing female voice rang out with a shocking Irish brogue, “Piss off or I’ll chuck ye into the Irrawaddy!” A thumping sound and a masculine groan followed. At almost the same moment a harried-looking Burmese man in a formerly white shirt and a tattered seaman’s cap appeared out of the blackness. He gestured impatiently for us to follow him. We complied and he led us up a spiral ladder to the upper deck where another fold of the human carpet lay wriggling and yawning. Just forward of the ladder head was a cabin door. Our conductor opened it and gestured us in, grumbling something about farangs. Apparently the boat’s captain, or the generals, didn’t want us pressing the flesh too closely with a discontented populace. Forbidden thoughts might be exchanged, untoward criticisms offered. The door closed behind us and we were in complete and fathomless darkness. Somewhere in the inky space we heard a shuffle, followed by the click of a cigarette lighter. Behind its cheery flame grinned the man we came to know as “Mad Max the Aussie.”
“Hello, mates,” he said. “Yanks?”
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
“It’s a gift.”
Other voices spoke up, though their faces were still obscured. “Hello; Allo; Good evening. Accents from New Zealand, France, and England. But no native tongue sounded. We had been billeted in a foreign ghetto. We were in the only passenger cabin on board.
“Pull up a bit of deck, mates,” Max said as he let the light go out. “There’s only two bunks, and the sick girls have ’em.”
We felt around among the other Western bodies for open deck space and let down our packs. Then the door opened again and two Irish women and a man joined our exile. Max repeated his welcome ceremony and we all chimed in.
“Seems we’ve all been shunned,” the Irishman said with something combining relief and bewilderment. He told us that the three of them had ensconced themselves among a pile of rice bags on the stern of the lower deck, and had been looking forward to a night of relative comfort. “But it seems we were situated directly below the spot on the upper deck where the Burmese gentlemen relieve themselves. Why I thought at first it was raining a wee bit. But no, not at all!” I could hear sniffing sounds in the dark as he inspected his clothes and bag.
“That ain’t the worst of it all!” I recognized the female voice of several moments ago. “One o’ those Burman lads was lyin’ right beside me and ‘e kept tryin’ to touch me tits! An’ ‘e kept grinnin’ at me an’ sayin’ ‘Boom Boom! Boom Boom’ ‘e wants now is it? I gave ‘im Boom Boom with me right foot. ‘Piss off,’ I told ‘im. Boom Boom indeed!”
We all went resolutely to sleep; and before dawn the boatmen cast off their lines and quietly headed the craft down stream. We awoke sometime after daybreak, with Mandalay miles behind us.
The Irrawady was in flood, and the river’s vast expanse stretched out in all directions. The green and distant shoreline, roiling with tropic growth, lay flat throughout the morning. In the afternoon it rose into wavy hills. From time to time we saw little army posts, keeping an eye open on behalf of the generals. The two sick girls whom the wildly bearded Max had mentioned the night before were sisters from New Zealand. They were slim and pretty, dressed in Burmese sarongs and blouses. They were unfailingly polite and proper and suffered their traveler’s ailments with Victorian stoicism and propriety. Fortunately, our cabin had a private toilet, such as it was (a closet with a hole cut in the floor overhanging the water). When the bellyache flared they were able to reach “the lavat’ry” without unladylike haste or display. In their times of gastrointestinal calm they sat up with correct posture and wrote demurely in their journals bound with creamy white paper. Any of us who spoke to them, even in the worst of their suffering, received a genuinely friendly and courteous reply. I wanted to tell them that if ever I had to spend days and nights huddled in a bomb shelter and suffering illness, danger, and deprivation, I hoped they would be there with me. But somehow that just didn’t sound like what I meant to convey, so I didn’t say it.
The rest of our cabin mates were a quiet lot. The Frenchwoman kept to herself and a novel. The young Englishwoman, who looked like a basketball player, would chat as long as anyone spoke to her but never said anything first. Max contemplated the river with a special intensity. A cigarette always hung from his mouth, but he tended to forget about it and the ash would drop onto his beard. Periodically he brushed it away, like a bothersome fly. The Irish played cards.
Around midday, as the sick girls politely voided their guts yet again, I realized that mine was empty. A breeze from astern told me someone was cooking. Bruce stepped out the door to reconnoiter. In a few minutes he returned to say, “There’s a galley on the stern and they’re serving food.”
“Can we get across the populated deck?” I asked.
“No. But I think I know a way. Follow me.”
Bruce led me through a dim passageway along the cabin wall to the starboardside railing. Directly below, the brown Irrawaddy frothed in the boat’s wake. Stretching aft from where we stood, the dense human tapestry that carpeted the deck had come to life and was even more impenetrable, if such a thing could be.
“Are you ready?” Bruce asked.
He swung first one leg and then the other over the rail. With his feet on the deck’s outer edge and his hands gripping the rail he began crabbing his way aft. When the tapestry people saw him they began to laugh and wave and cheer him on. He grinned hugely and waved back, once even letting go and saying “Look, no hands! Ha ha!” I wiped my sweaty palms on my trousers and followed. We reached the little open-air galley to general applause.
The cook was dressed in a frayed and faded loincloth and a tattered undershirt that was a lot less of its original self than more. He had dark stains on his teeth, thick black dirt under his nails (all ten of them), and his galley matched him in all the important details. We sat at his greasy plywood counter and he greeted us in passable English: “Good afternoon! You want food? You want drink?”
“Do you have tea?”
“Oh, yes yes yes. Tea.” He picked up a pot from the stove and reached for two cups on the counter. Seeing that they had not been emptied by his previous patrons, he casually dumped their contents over the side and refilled them.
“Do you have soda?”
“Soda, yes yes yes.” He opened two bottles of greenish froth and set them before us. They smelled of wet cow pasture. The bottle mouths were surrounded by a brown encrustation.
“Do you have straws?”
“Yes yes yes.” He stuck a straw into each bottle. They had teeth marks on them.
“Do you have beer?”
“Beer no. No no no. Nowhere on boat. Captain say. Too bad, eh?”
The coming days stretched out very long and dim. Deciding to make the best of it we asked the man what he had in the way of food. He removed the covers from a pot of rice and three pots of things we could not recognize. One of them looked like curried dirt, but I could not be sure. The others were anyone’s guess. I pride myself on being able to eat anything. I might even eat dirt. But it has got to be clean dirt.
“I’ll have rice,” I said.
“I’ll try the green one,” Bruce said pointing to one of the pots. “And rice, too.”
The rice was clean and smelled wholesome. The cook served it with his stained smile and a small dish of condiment. “In Burma we eat rice every time,” he explained. “Sometimes only rice. It’s O.K. when you have something for taste. This one is good.”
His offering was simply peanut oil infused with garlic and sesame. But drizzling small amounts of it over the rice, or forming the rice into balls and dipping them into the oil, made it as good as pasta with a simple sauce of olive oil and Parmesan. As we ate, I told Bruce, “Somewhere between here and Rangoon we’ve got to get invited home to dinner. It’s the only way I’m going to see enough of Burmese cooking.”
“So what have you learned about it so far?”
“I know that their hospitality is extravagant. I’ve heard that they’ll even get up from the table to fan guests who are overheated. And they like to have dinner together at sunset. They have a saying that, ‘Eating together is a buttress against night’s approach.’ And of course they eat curries, and a lot of different salads and greens. Like the Chinese, they connect food and pharmacology and rather than use medicine for an ailment they might prescribe a change of diet. Although, unlike the Chinese, who have the concept of the Five Flavors, the Burmese have thirteen! One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is that they are connoisseurs of water. H20 is never simply agua. They divide it into numerous categories: rainwater, hail water, pond water, water from a creek, water from a ravine, water from a well; it goes on and on.”
Sipping through his chewed-up straw and sniffing at the bottle, Bruce said, “You think they do the same for soda? You know, soda from a swamp, soda from a ditch, soda from a puddle?”
We finished our meal and returned to the cabin the way we had come, amusing the deck passengers yet again. We told the others what we had done and the Irish followed our example. After they reached the galley the woman with the shocking brogue leaned over the stern and located Mr. Boom Boom on the lower deck. When she caught his eye she gave him the finger. She returned to the cabin exhilarated, though somewhat put off by the bill of fare. All the other cabin mates, except the sick girls, eventually crab-walked to the galley and got something to eat.
Except for our brief trips to the galley, the day was long, uneventful, and quiet. And with the heat in the river valley we all became lethargic and sleepy. The sun was just touching the horizon when the boat slowed and her pilot guided her to a sandspit where a huge banyan tree had overturned. Crewmen leapt ashore and wrapped two hawsers around the tree, securing the boat for the night. The deck passengers began arranging themselves for sleep, gathering up their children, rolling out their cotton blankets. The two sick girls were relieved that the vibrations from the boat’s engines had ceased and they lay peacefully with no angry rumblings from their tired tummies. The others in our exile lay down too. Even the river seemed to still itself. In the gathering dusk, through jungle foliage, I saw lights winking on a short distance downstream. “Bruce,” I said, “there are people down there. And I’ll bet they’re about to have dinner. Do you think they’d like to invite us?”
We headed for the door and the English basketball woman spoke first at last. “May I go with you? I’m frightfully hungry. Couldn’t eat a thing at the galley.”
“Of course. Glad to have you.”
“If you see soldiers after dark,” Max warned, “give ’em a wide berth. They won’t take any cheek.”
No gangway had been laid out when the boat was tied up, so to get to shore we had to climb over the rail and shinny down one of the poles that supported the upper deck. From there we swung down the hawser to the banyan tree and jumped down to the beach. We followed the shoreline downstream in the last of the light, and by the time dark had fallen we were able to follow the happy sounds of feasting.
We arrived at a thatch and bamboo village of about a dozen families who were just sitting down to a communal dinner. At their first sight of us a shout went up as though both the circus and the Wells Fargo wagon had just come to town. The children instantly ran to us and took us by the hands, laughing and squealing. At the lantern-lit tables set up in the village quad, the fattest and most prosperous looking man present looked up in happy amazement and immediately set aside his dinner, knocked back a swallow of an unknown beverage, and came waddling up to greet us. He pressed his hands together in a prayerful attitude and made what must have been a speech of welcome, to which all the villagers chimed in approval. Somebody said something funny and the whole populace broke into waves of laughter, the kids jumping up and down in a kind of ecstatic dance. Nobody spoke a word of English.
I began to wonder if we had been expected and that I had slept for many days and forgotten about it. Had Din Tun told us to look up his people downriver? Had he sent word ahead to treat us like heroes? Did one of us resemble somebody’s prodigal son? Or were we being mistaken for someone else who would soon arrive? Or fail to arrive? Would we end up hogging someone else’s glory? Were we, in reality, in a Hope and Crosby road movie, and was the Englishwoman really Dorothy Lamour? One of the men approached us with a red two-and-a-half-gallon gasoline can, all the people making way for him. As he got near he began to screw on the nozzle. Was the movie turning into a nightmare? Were we about to become a roaring sacrifice that would guarantee this year’s crops? Had we trespassed? “Maybe they’ll just kill the girl,” I thought. “Maybe they need somebody for a suttee, and being a head taller than us, she’ll make a better blaze.” Reaching into a shoulder bag the man produced three small glasses and filled them with the clear contents of the gasoline can. It was rice wine. And powerful rice wine, too.
My companions sipped theirs, but I knocked mine back neat and the people cheered. I came to wish they hadn’t done that, as it inspired me to further acts of alcoholic bravado, which culminated in a big headache.
The village children seemed to lay particular claims to us and soon we each had our own retinue, if not rival faction. They clung to us, led us around the village, never took their eyes off us, even petted us. I began to feel like a show horse they had just purchased. But then they took us to the tables and I felt like a king. The portly speechmaker spoke again. He seemed to be offering a toast or a grace, some prologue to dinner to which everyone nodded agreement. Then it was time to feast.
The women laid out a great variety of meats, vegetables, rice, and condiments. And the variety of salads was amazing. Anything that grew in the ground was likely to be chopped up raw or cooked and tossed with oil and herbs. Different kinds of greens arrived, each cooked with a different spice bouquet or aromatic oil. A flurry of cutlery sounded from the nearby open communal kitchen as still more food was prepared and sent to the table. The gas-can bearer stood by, never allowing an empty glass. The kids all schooled around their chosen ones and the men all beamed with pride and amusement. It struck me that we three were the only ones eating, but the people didn’t seem to mind a bit. We were nightclub entertainment and they weren’t going to miss a thing.
The jewel in the crown of this night’s table was braised pork. Its color was like a burnished copper. It swam in a decadent, thick sauce of ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and light sesame oil, and undercurrents of chili and black pepper swirled through it. It was cloaked with rings of translucent golden onions and sat enthroned in a silver server, as all the lesser dishes paid it humble homage. One of the girls in my troop of young followers dished it up for me. She kept speaking to me and seemed to be saying, “This is my mother’s dish. It’s the best you’ll ever taste.” It had been cooked long and slow and the meat fell apart on my tongue, resolving itself into a saucy, rich and heavy dew that coated the mouth with tasty pleasure. The rice wine was its perfect foil as it cleansed the palate of the not-quite cloying richness and made it ready for more.
We ate our fill. And after dinner we were led around the village again, presumably to shake it down. We returned to the tables and more rice wine flowed. We tried to converse with our hosts in sign language but it proved a poor second to the language of the table with its unambiguous messages of welcome and cheer. And then some of the kids began to sing. At first it was two girls and a boy. And it was clear they were singing to us. Soon all the village children were singing, their parents clapping time, a few even swaying to the music. At the end of their song we all applauded. Then two men took the stage. They sang what I thought must have been a working song because of the lifting and hauling gestures. They were followed by more applause and more wine.
Then Bruce said, “Richard, do Gunga Din for ’em!”
“But they won’t know what I’m saying.”
“It won’t matter. Just be dramatic and rhythmic.”
So I stood up, and lifted up my hands to ask for their attention. “You may talk of gin and beer, when you’re quartered safe out here,” I began, stressing rhythm and rhyme. “And you’re sent to penny fights and Aldershot it.” They were immediately rapt. They had no idea what I was about to do, but they were going to savor every bit of it. I acted out the story. I hammed it up. Kipling would have been aghast. They loved it. With very little coaxing I got the kids to join in at the refrains with “Din, Din, Din!” They might have had no idea what the poem was about. They might have thought it was “Little Red Riding Hoo” or the Ramayana. But they loved it. I ended with a dramatic flourish: I portrayed Gunga Din dying. They went bananas. Another song followed.
By this time I could see that Bruce was up to something he loves: arm wrestling. He is very good at it and often wrestles for beers in taverns. He taught me the trick of leveraging yourself from the foot up in order to gain maximum advantage of an opponent. If the other guy doesn’t know how to do that just right, a smaller man can often take a bigger one.
Bruce was gesturing to a man whose arms suggested he lived behind a plow and had some good-natured pride in his strength. Everybody else saw it at the same time and a cheer went up: the entertainment program included not only arts, but sports as well! Amid shouting and wagers on the conquerer the two men were led to where the whole village could see: the terrace of a thatch and bamboo house raised on stilts that put the floor at eye level. A perfect stage.
I mounted the steps with Bruce to act as his second. A friend of the plowman did the same and we were accompanied by the portly greeter whose house it turned out to be. He addressed the people like a Las Vegas ringside announcer and the whole population whooped and hollered. The two contestants nodded to each other, then lay down on the floor and took each other’s measure. I looked carefully at the Burmese’s body language and could see that he didn’t know how to play this game. “He doesn’t know the trick, Bruce. Play it out. Give the folks a good show.” I knelt down and put their hands together. Out in the crowd I saw the Englishwoman, who looked worried. I gave her a wink, counted loudly to three, and hollered, “Go!”
Bruce gave the man a couple of inches to start, then played him like a fish on a line for a good two minutes. The crowd went delirious. Then, pretending it was a huge effort, Bruce brought his foe to an honorable defeat. All cheered, and Bruce’s child groupies gloated. Money changed hands.
As Bruce congratulated his opponent for fighting the good fight, I noticed a line of strong men form at the bottom of the terrace steps, happily awaiting their chance to wrestle. Bruce took on two of them, not drawing it out this time, so as not to lose his strength too soon. For his fourth combat he had to switch to his left arm, which necessitated finding southpaws among the challengers. He dispatched two more.
By now he was beginning to tire, though the crowd was lustily yelling for more. I was massaging his arms while his child pages brought him drinks when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned to see a walking collection of cord-like muscles topped by a shaggy head with a gap-toothed grin. One of his tree-trunk arms was making wrestling motions, the other was pointing at me and the whole population of the village was screaming its approval. I began massaging Bruce’s arms more quickly. “Come on, Brooster. Let’s get those arms ready!”
But he insisted I take the challenge. “Go ahead,” he said. “You can do it.”
“What if he falls on me? I’ll be crushed!”
“You can take him. Remember, it’s like boxing, where the jab begins at the foot and works its way up through the body like a whip. It’s just like that.”
I looked at my would-be opponent. At least he didn’t seem hostile. I looked at the Englishwoman who was now enjoying the show. And the village folk who had feasted us were chanting. Then I looked at my child faction, the kids who had fed me, sang to me, and Gunga Dinned with me. They were hopping up and down in transports of ecstasy at the thought that their knight was about to do battle. If I were to turn such a tide of enthusiasm by refusing the challenge, I would regret it forever. Better I should suffer whatever injuries might befall me. I dropped down to the floor and held up my hand to be crushed, twisted, or deformed in whatever way fate might feel disposed. The tree-trunk man lowered himself in sections, settling his mass onto the floor one joint at a time. My arms felt like matchsticks. I wanted to ask the crowd to pray for me, but I didn’t know how. The portly householder, Bruce, three other guys, and a couple of kids now occupied the terrace with the man mountain and me.
A relative calm came over the crowd as Bruce knelt down and placed my hand into the other’s. “You’re in perfect position,” he said. “And he’s got both feet together. He’ll have no leverage. All you need to do is work against his weight.”
“Well there’s enough of that, I’ll tell you!”
I felt a sudden twisting in my shoulder joint accompanied by electric-like shocks, and an enormous pressure running laterally through my forearm as though the guy were trying to drive my elbow through the floor like a knife. It hurt, too. But Bruce was right. The man didn’t know how to direct his strength in this kind of contest. If I could hold out, and throw him off balance by feints, I might beat the big SOB. At the least, I’d make him work for it.
Sweat streamed down our faces. Our bodies shook with effort. The crowd screamed. It seemed to go on forever. The people on the terrace with us were jumping up and down, causing the thin floor to undulate and making it difficult to stay positioned. And then with a loud snapping sound two of the bamboo poles that held up one side of the terrace broke, the floor came out from under us and fell to an angle of thirty degrees before hitting the ground. Of the jumpers-up-and-down, some slid down the incline as though on a waterslide, some tumbled end over end, and the owner fell off completely and went straight to the ground with a splat. My opponent and I rolled like a drum, hands still locked in the struggle, all the way down. I didn’t even realize what had happened till we were halfway to the ground. We were still wrestling when we hit bottom. The entire village, even the ones who had been on the terrace, the owner included, were beside themselves with laughter. The tree-trunk man suddenly became confused. I took advantage of his momentary distraction and with the mightiest heave of my life put his arm to the ground. I stood up the victor.
I offered congratulations to the defeated, who was a good sport about it, and calm was returning to the crowd. The excitement had peaked with the breaking of the terrace and we all needed to catch our breath. But the night was still young. Or so we thought.
“What are you doing?!” a voice at the rim of the crowd demanded in broken English. “What are you doing?!” Before we could even realize what was happening the crowd had melted away just as quickly as breath into the wind, leaving behind only the scent of sandalwood paste. All else was open starry sky and stillness. We three farangs stood alone facing one of the generals’ watchers. A soldier, in army-issue underwear, stood there panting, an old submachine gun leveled at us. We had apparently disturbed his rest.
“What are you doing?” he shouted again. It must have been the only English he knew. We began backing off slowly.
“Well…uh,” the Englishwoman said.
“Yeah…uh,” I followed.
“We’re getting the hell out of here!” Bruce said. And we all turned and ran like Frenzy back up river. I remembered to weave as I went, just in case he tried to draw a bead on me. As we approached the boat, still running like bats out of hell, I could hear him, though faintly, still repeating his demand. Then he fired a burst into the air for good measure. When we reached the boat we leapt up onto the banyan, hauled ourselves up the hawser, and shinnied up the deck support. We found the passageway blocked by cargo, so we crabbed along the railing forward to a cabin window. Our cabin mates were waiting for us as we crawled through breathless.
“What happened?” they all asked.
“Cross a soldier?” Max wanted to know.
“Are you all right?”
“Are any of you hurt? We heard shouting and shooting. Was it a riot of some kind? A revolt? What ever happened?”
I braced myself against the cabin wall and slid down to sit on the deck. “Nothing at all to be upset about,” I said between gasps. “Nothing to worry about. We just got invited home to dinner. That’s all.”
Richard Sterling is a writer, editor, lecturer, and insatiable traveler. Earlier in life he was a Silicon Valley engineer, but stability and respectability lost out over wanderlust. Since taking up the pen he has been honored by the James Beard Foundation for his food writing, and by the Lowell Thomas Awards for his travel literature. He is based in Berkeley, California, where he is often politically incorrect.
Other Books by Richard Sterling
Travelers’ Tales Food: A Taste of the Road
The Adventure of Food: True Stories of Eating Everything
The Ultimate Journey: Inspiring Stories of Living and Dying
How to Eat Around the World: Tips and Wisdom
The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area
Unofficial Guide to San Francisco
World Food: Hong Kong
World Food: Vietnam
World Food: Greece
World Food: Spain