Monday, April 03, 2006

The Charles Begley Despatches

the following is a hilarious account fom Chas a slightly eccentric English guy born 100 years too late. It's of our Burma adventure a couple of weeks ago.... feel free to read

Hello One and All

I trust you are well.
Sorry guys but this is a bit of a tome but I’m sure you all know how to operate you delete buttons! Feel free to forgo the written word which is written as much for my benefit ads yours and just look at the pictures!
Thank you to those who replied with such humorous comments to my earlier missive on Burma. Just to clarify I was very much an observer on the trip and had no specific duties, much less any kind of responsibility for any kind of organisation!! Thus explains the length of time before my reported mutiny. Anyway on with the tale. . . .
My fellow travellers were a rather eclectic mix of elephant adventurers. We were led by Asian hero of 2005 and world renowned elephant saviour Lek Chailert. She was backed up her two key lieutenants. The first was jungle expert, Karen speaking, Thai Boxing Champion, driving expert Chom. He was on his first ever visit out of Thailand and kept being mistaken as Burmese. Not being used to being the foreigner he responded with a blank _expression akin to a deaf mute confusing even greater confusion. The second member of her inner circle was Jeff a former Canadian ice dancing champion (useful skill in the jungle) and environmental engineerAussie couple Kate and Ed had journalistic and filming responsibilities and joining me on purely observational duties was American Laura. On the night following the doomed ‘Operation White Elephant’ the team was in the bar drinking heavily when our incompetent guide, Pitiful Pete came in with good news. He had found two vehicles and drivers prepared to take us into the jungle the following day. Commander Lek went out to inspect the machines and pronounced herself satisfiedthat they were acceptable.
Pitiful then joined us in the bar for a briefing.
‘We need to be early’, he told us earnestly. ‘Then we will be able to visit the elephant trap and we may get to see wild elephants of which there are many’.
This all sounded very promising. However knowing the propensity of people in that part of Asia to be a little careless with time keeping and not wanting to get up at sparrow’s fart without good reason I double checked.
‘Oh no’, he assured me, ‘6 a.m. guaranteed’.
On the dot the next morning I reported to the lobby only to find that apart from Lek everyone was still in bed and no Pitiful Pete with vehicles. Enraged I grabbed my camera and stormed out into the neighbouring streets. I was soon calmed by the joy of watching a Burmese town going through the waking ritual. The day begins with young, novice, boy monks walking the streets ringing bells to raise the population from their slumbers. Traders began to move their goods to market and long lines of barefooted monks padded silently barefoot through the streets for breakfast and morning prayer. Many of them cast me a shy glance as I clicked away at their morning routine and gave me a soft smile of welcome. I returned to the guesthouse in a greatly relaxed mood and realised that my sore throat had almost gone. I was on the mend and further buoyed by the sight of Pitiful loading our gear on to a pick up. The lead vehicle in which the team would be travelling was a magnificent eight-seater, air-conditioned, 4x4 Mitsubishi Pajero which looked comfortably rugged enough to cope with the jungle. It was the best vehicle I had seen since arriving in the country. I was later to discover it had been stolen in Thailand and smuggled across the border as are all the best vehicles in Burma. Still Asian auto theft was no concern of mine. Onward. . . . . By 6.45 we were on our way, not bad by Asian standards. With luck we would be in the jungle by mid morning but as usual events did not proceed as anticipated. After just 10 miles we stopped at the junction town where we would leave the main road and travel into the interior for breakfast. We were then told that our back up vehicle had decided not to continue. Apparently the driver had chickened out and decided he wouldn’t risk his vehicle and although we of course would not be charged he had sneakily managed to obtain a full tank of fuel paid for with our precious dollars. It was vital we had a second vehicle to carry supplies and Pitiful returned to Toungoo to try to find the required transport unfortunately accompanied by one of the team. Laura had become extremely unwell and reluctantly took the very wise decision to return to town. One vehicle and one team member down and not yet 8 o’clock! Without our guide, supplies and a team member we headed for the forest. We passed the limits of civilisation and followed the road into the jungle before arriving at a government checkpoint. We were all required to leave the car, show our passports and special permission for entering a ‘restricted area’ and duly fleeced of 10 bucks each to help keep the Junta afloat.
The road became increasingly winding. It was hellishly dusty and we doubly grateful for the Pajero’s air-con. Eventually we reached a tiny village the last habitation of any size for many, many miles. We waited for a couple of hours before eventually Pitiful appeared in a clapped out pick up that bore a striking resemblance to the doomed vehicle from the previous day. I suppressed the urge to comment and we pressed on.
Before too long the support vehicle broke down and after a very brief discussion decided to ditch it. Another full tank of fuel disappears! Rather suspiciously Pitiful produced a motorbike from nowhere for himself and decreed that the supplies and his assistant would hitch a ride with a logging truck. I remember thinking he was not the only one being taken for a ride that day!
The road was a dirt track literally bludgeoned through the jungle by JCB digger, bulldozer and steamroller. It was built solely to bring the out the valuable teak and it wound through primary forest for mile after mile. Apart from the odd local on a motorbike the only traffic was the occasional giant lorry either full of timber and leaving the forest or empty and returning for more. The local hardwoods provide the Junta ith 25% of their foreign currency. For the most part logging in Burma appears to be selective and as a result deforestation is kept to a minimum but at one stage we passed through a few miles of clear cut. Everything taller than a blade of grass had been brutally removed from the landscape. It looked like a war zone from hell and I shuddered to think what will happen if the Burmese Junta gets greedy and decides to take out everything.
We stopped at a roadside shack and Lek cooked us some lunch on an open fire. We had just begun to eat and an elephant and her mahout, or oozie as they call them in Burma, just wandered casually out of the forest. We all fussed over the elephant who although appearing tired looked otherwise in good health. I was forced to hand over the bananas I had bought for personal consumption earlier in the day! The oozie joined us and told how he had been travelling through prime jungle for the past eight hours. He was moving to his next logging job and was totally unfazed at travelling so far alone with his elephant in the jungle. Such a journey appeared totally natural to him and all part of the incredibly hard life the oozies lead.
After lunch more endless driving until finally it was declared that we had arrived. Call me naïve but when I was told I would be going to a logging camp I envisaged a central point where the work was coordinated; an office, a truck stop, some accommodation building, perhaps some rudimentary health centre etc. I was therefore bemused and my suspicions aroused to be confronted by a simple wooden hut and a broken down lorry that had been butchered for parts. A track led off into the jungle.
On foot we followed Pitiful down the hill into the primary forest. All the alarm bells started ringing and I began to begin voice some doubts to my companions who were similarly confused and alarmed. Eventually we came to what cannot even be described as a hut. A few bamboo poles covered with a torn tarpaulin in a riverbed. Three totally startled locals stared at us with utter astonishment from their rudimentary retreat. Pitiful burbled away to them in Burmese and in retrospect I suspect he was telling them they were being evicted for the night..
He turned to us and like an estate agent proudly displaying a room at the height of luxury and with a flamboyant wave of the hand declared ‘We have arrived at the camp’.
Are you bloody mad?’ I spluttered.
‘It will be fine’, he replied with a before wisely disappearing for a very, very long time.
It is fair to say that the offered accommodation caused more than mild consternation in the ranks. Our outrage became increasingly exacerbated as at that very moment clouds moved in and it began to rain for the only time while we were in Burma. Complaining bitterly we huddled as well as we were able in the shelter. It immediately became obvious that the roof failed in its primary function. The main concern was for our thousands of pounds of high tech camera gear which responds poorly to water. As we were dashing about trying to wrap the equipment in plastic bags the floor suddenly collapsed.
The problem, as our team engineer helpfully pointed out, was that while these rustic jungle shelters provide perfectly adequate protection for a couple of lithe jungle men they tend to respond less well to six blundering urbanites leaping around. The structural integrity cannot cope with the strain.
Crack! Another part of the floor collapsed and there was really nothing for it but to get off the shelter and simply stand rather forlornly in the rain. While I and my Australian companions contented ourselves with colourful language and witty wisecracks other members of the party responded in a more positive manner. Eventually Jeff the engineer, Chom the jungle boy and the three ejected mahouts went off into the jungle and began to hack down huge lengths of bamboo. Despite one narrowly missing crushing what remained of the pathetic little hut they slowly began to make progress, the rain stopped, Lek began cooking and the Aussies and I cracked open some beers. The amazing recuperative powers of lager started working their magic and soon the world looked brighter and more humorous.
Uncannily just as dinner was being served Pitiful reappeared with his assistant beaming widely as if he was the manager of a five star hotel attending his guests. Somehow he sensed it was wise to give me a wide berth - he located himself as far from me as possible.
Over dinner and into the evening we spoke with the Burmese oozies and learned of their impossibly difficult lives working the timber forests. With virtually no possessions they toil with their elephants confronting the many dangers of the jungle and many miles from their family and friends. It is a hard and lonely existence for the princely sum of US$4 a month. When they heard descriptions of the work of the mahouts at the Nature Park they all wanted jobs on the spot. Some of them spoke of seriously contemplating the dangers of travelling across Burma to become refugee workers in Thailand. Bedtime came and Pitiful started erecting mosquito nets for the assembled party. I can’t imagine why but I think he must have been upset with me for some reason because there was no net for me.
‘You don’t need one’, he said somewhat inexplicably.
Presumably his evil plan was for me to be eaten alive by the giant malarial mosquitoes of the forest. Cheers mate!
As it happened his cunning scheme completely backfired. I smothered myself in repellent and was totally untroubled by bugs all night whereas most of the others found that mossies has penetrated their net defence and they had been bitten to buggery.
The following morning it was up at dawn and ee watched as the elephants were given their bath in a tiny muddy stream before being hooked up with their logging harnesses. We walked with them for several miles through beautiful lush jungle until we arrived at a clearing where freshly felled logs lay waiting. The elephants were hooked up for work. I was confused why the smallest elephant was given the biggest log. The poor girl started crying and whimpering as soon as the harness was attached. We all watched as she struggled and heaved the huge tree up a steep incline and everyone felt for her. The big tusker on the other hand seemed to have the lightest load and casually strolled up the hill browsing from the trees as he went. Sometimes things in Asia defy explanation.
For nearly two hours we followed the elephants toiling at their labour until they finally brought their burdens to the main road. The logs were manipulated and stack with others where they would wait until being collected by one of the giant timber lorries and taken to Rangoon for export.
That afternoon we visited a village deep in the mountains, where retired and injured elephants live much easier lives, before the long drive back to Toungoo. Sharing Burma’s unlit roads at night with logging trucks, military convoys, ox carts, bicycles and most other types of transport devised by man can be a pretty nerve wracking experience. Liberal use of the horn and a steady nerve are recommended for those in the car. Those not in motor vehicles would be best advised in my opinion to stay at home. It was lethal. When we arrived back in town we were taken to our driver’s restaurant where we were served easily the worse meal we had on the entire trip. After dinner we were presented with the bombshell that the car rather than costing US$65 a day was suddenly increased to $300 bucks. It was the final straw in rip off city.
Ed the Aussie and I railed against the driver and Pitiful Pete. All the outrage of the past two days came out and we really got stuck in. To further complicate matters during our heated negotiation a local drunk decided it was the perfect time to pick a fight with obstreperous foreigners. In many countries those wanting a punch-up invite the other side to go outside, apparently in Burma the done thing is to offer to swap shirts.
Not understanding the seriousness of the offer with a wave of the hand we casually declined a clothing exchange and returned to our argument. This brought shrieks of rage from the drunk who began to get increasingly demonstrative,
‘Do you not like my shirt? I want your shirt. Give it to me’, he demanded as he started to un button his shirt and puff out his chest.
Tiredness, anger, frustration boiled over and Ed and I turned on the drunk with such fury that he was completely taken aback and rapidly retired to his buddies in the corner muttering and shaking his head. The display of combined righteous anger also had an effect on Pitiful and the driver and very quickly $50 was knocked off the bill although not to be outdone they simply added it to the restaurant bill. Just as we were about to kick off again Lek fearing things would get nasty pulled rank so we paid up and left.
I never saw Pitiful or the driver again – odd that.
Phew sorry folks that’s almost a book. I’ll leave it a while before the final Burma missive which tells of the completely mad military regime and how I found myself at the centre of a rebellion to overthrow it!
Never a dull moment
Love to all

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