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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Mexico 1966


Today in this politically correct, modern, absurdly protected bubble world for children where there are advisory labels on TV shows that tell you that they are not suitable for viewers under the age of 16, a world where you are notified that you can't even ride a goddamn elevator alone at that age, diving boards have been removed from pools, for fear of injury, and helmets are required to ride bicycles, I was taking my first magnificent road trip, driving throughout Mexico with a fifteen year old friend, both of us armed to the teeth with pearl handled, shiny chrome, Smith and Wesson 38 caliber revolvers and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

That trip was my first epic journey which really opened my eyes to a new world of unrestrained travel in a country far outside the comfortable, predictable, American middle class harmony I had known all my life, that fantastic crazy road trip we took throughout Mexico.
 
At sixteen years old, after the 11th grade, I and a friend of mine named Loren Jones, who was fifteen at the time, bought a 1955 baby blue Ford Woody Station Wagon for $200 bucks off of a used car lot in Burlingame California near by to where we lived about 15 miles south of San Francisco.
Loren was still to young to have his drivers license, but I did.

We spent most of the summer in 1966 traveling throughout Mexico, East to West, North to South, through the rugged volcanic mountains of the Sierra Madre Del Sur, through steamy poisonous jungles digging hidden stone tomb ruins of ancient empires long forgotten, we drove nearly all the way to the Guatemalan border and all the way back home.
In spite of the fact that we had our own money, his from being rich, mine from working for $1.25 an hour popping popcorn at sporting events at the Cow Palace where my father was Manager, we were determined to go.

Our parents helped us financially to deter us from our first plan: to go to the Galapagos Islands,
Charles Darwin's field location for his book, "The Origins of Species".

The Galapagos islands are 650 miles off the coast of Ecuador. We had written to the government of Ecuador asking permission to visit and weeks later had received official permission for "Urine Jones and Richard Diran to travel there. At that time there was only one boat, the Christobo Columbo, which would have sailed from the port of Guayaqil and dropped us off at the main island Isla Isabela and picked us up one month later. In 1966 nobody was going to the Galapagos Islands.

Our parents caught wind of this adventure and thinking perhaps correctly that we would never be heard from again, essentially bribed us to go no further than the Guatemalan border for $1,000 dollars each.
Ok, we relented, no further than Guatemala.

50 years after we took that vacation, I have come across my original journals which I have had in storage for over 20 years and will now recreate some of the highlights from that fantastic journey.

A couple of hundred miles from home, we blew a few blistering retreaded tires somewhere outside Needles California in the Mojave desert clustered with rattlesnake nests and angry cactus. There we spotted a Southern Pacific train wreck which was crushed and scattered from a long forgotten derailment. By the looks of it it had been there for years. Tires changed, we reached Phoenix Arizona and checked in to a pale pink motel with a kidney shaped pool and a vacancy sign on the highway. There were a pair of lovely young blonds who were also inexplicably staying it turned out, in the room next door to ours. We invited them over to drink beers. After several cold ones they seemed very amenable, it was, after all, the year before the "Summer of Love" with free sex and raging teenage hormones.


The girl I liked best soon showered naked behind the blur of the glass door. The water rivulets ran down the transparent window, as she arched back and rinsed suds from her golden hair. God she was beautiful. They were our age, I guessed, about sixteen, and alone, what the hell were they doing here in this seedy motel?


After a delightful night of raucous romance and bed board bashing, I slowly woke up next to my golden teen angel. She smiled faintly, as she opened her eyes and drew a sheet around her naked body. We drank coffee, and I kissed her goodbye.
We were on a mission.
Loren and I left the motel on the 4th day out heading for New Mexico. We passed through some town called Gripe Arizona that had one gas station.
After 1212 miles on day 5, we drove through El Paso Texas and somebody pointed out the house where Bobby Fuller had lived. Fuller sang the song "I fought the Law", (and the law won). Fuller was just found dead, we knew, in L.A, murdered, having gasoline poured down his throat. We passed through the border to Ciudad Juarez with letters of permission for travel to Mexico from our parents, and entered gritty Mexico with a radiator grill clogged with monstrous flying insects.

The liquor stores here have no problem selling us beer and we bought a dozen Dos Equis. There was a family who welcomed us to stay with them. There were 15 kids who had never seen binoculars. Slept outside on the porch in a lightning storm. The poverty here is extreme. Along the road was a dead cow with a dozen black vultures, tearing away at what remained.

After about 1,800 miles in the Chihuahuan Desert there was a massive migration of orange poisonous centipedes several yards wide crossing the road for as far as you could see in either direction from horizon to horizon. Came to a town called Jimenez where dirt poor people lived in crumbling orange brown adobe houses. One young woman in a dusty shawl nursed a kid in the road. Loren and I had 6 tacos, 2 plates of frijoles and beers for 62 cents.

Day 6: Woke up in the station wagon under 3 concrete fading chipped walls in a Pemex gas station where swallows zoom in and out from every angle. Had breakfast and turned on to highway 49 to Torreon. Single human graves with white cross markers line the roadside near where a very thin horse had died of exhaustion. Tonight we will stay in Torreon in a nice room for 100 pesos or $8 bucks. We found a night club with very tough swarthy mustached Mexicans watching several strippers on stage, undulating in colored lights, dressed in dazzling sequins. One girl was about 18 named Sylvia. I got her address. We didn't get back to the room until 3:30 am.
Sylvia was an angel with a pony tail.

Left the hotel at 1pm and went over to find Sylvia who stayed with her mother in an adobe house.
She and her mom dressed in long skirts and modest aprons which brushed the ground. How different from last nights attire! Her mom made us some tortillas and beers and after a bit of innocent flirting, we left Torreon for Tampico. Loren didn't put any water in the radiator and it blew up 25 miles out of town along with a snapped fan belt in the middle of some nowhere desert. We patched the radiator holes with soap and it seemed to hold water. Soon the car completely stopped dead and some truck came along and pushed us 6 miles into some small town.
The whole village came out to help and yanked out the radiator with the help of the head lights from
the same truck which had pushed us.

Finally we got the car running again and after a hundred miles or so the countryside became refreshingly green. We went swimming in a cold swiftly moving river. Back on the road some truck swerved to miss hitting a cow and nearly smashed into us. Got to Ciudad Victoria and slept there. Woke up sick from the lousy food and went back to sleep.


On the 9th day we left for Tampico and crossed over the Tropic of Cancer. The countryside is lush sticky and emerald green. Thousands of multi colored butterflies swarm. Tampico was a shit hole so we left to go to Mexico City. Somewhere along the route we stopped in a town named Zimapan at some very old colonial style hotel with a stagnant green algae filled fountain in the court yard inlaid with locally mined opals.
The interior of the hotel was dark and spooky with thick walls and an empty fireplace so large you could sleep in there. Some lanky guy in a shinny black suit came in and asked for our order. I said something like "Oh, how about a 1961 Chateau La Tour" as a joke. Ten minutes later he returns from the shadows with the dusty bottle. A 1961 La Tour! Where did he find this very rare wine? He twists out the cork pouring in to the crystal, and says "Will the two be staying the night?" Guy Is creepy.

We said that we wanted to check out the rooms first and went upstairs where there was a rotting moldy overstuffed chair pushed up against wall, the only thing keeping it from falling to pieces. It seems no one had stayed here for years. Down the dusty hallway where nobody had walked in ages was a room on the right which we entered. The bed was unmade as if someone had just thrown off the covers and climbed out. There was a cigarette still burning in an ashtray on the side table. If anyone had been in this room recently there would have been footprints in the thick dust.
There were none.
How the hell did this happen?
Loren and I went downstairs where the spidery waiter said again in English, "will the two be staying the night?". We finished off the last drop of that magical vintage and man, we peeled out of that place with gravel flying off the back of our tires.

Passed by a another dead rotting horse with a cautious dog chewing its carcass. We rose into the high mountains through the clouds skirting cliffs with no road barriers to keep you from crashing over. Came around a turn too fast and heard this horrible squealing as I ran over a pig, ripping the exhaust pipes from the engine. In the rear view mirror I could see the pig tumbling along on the road with the hot tail pipe.
It began to rain and coming around a turn too fast, I crashed into the mountain. Suddenly people appeared from banana groves above the road as if they expected us, and plied the left side front of the car up like a wing so the car wheel could be steered. Surely if we had not crashed in to the mountain but went over the other side, we would have been goners.

We checked into one of the best hotels in Mexico City for a night of well deserved sleep. Loren ordered a tray of fancy cocktails with little umbrellas and we drank all of them. The next morning we drove off to our auto insurance company Sanborne to have the car repaired. Loren was driving and the gas petal got stuck. Mexico City is congested and terrible for driving. Stalled out again and a huge truck rammed into the back of us without even slowing down and pushed us aside like scrap metal.

In 1964 my father booked a group of magnificent sombrero clad Mexican cowboys called the Charros for the Grand National horse show at the Cow Palace. Their leader was a very prominent businessman from Mexico City named Senior Antonio Gil Ortega. My father wired him 26 air tickets
for the men and women, and sent the horses by rail. 1964 was the year my father brought the Beatles to San Francisco as well as the Republican National Convention.
At the conclusion of the shows, Senor Gil rode several times around the arena in full gallop, saluting and waving his sombrero. They had been a smash hit and every year thereafter, my father would find a gold embossed Christmas card in the mailbox.

Naturally we contacted Senior Gil soon after arriving in Mexico City. From the 14th day in Mexico City till the 21st, we stayed and were royally treated at Senor Gil's opulent house with his family. At meal times each one of us had a personal servant standing behind their chair. Somewhere I acquired a very old weathered human skull.
When we left Mexico City Senor Gil gave each of us a chrome plated, pearl handled 38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the perfect gift for two underage juvenile delinquents heading south with a human skull rolling around the back seat.

Driving out of town I decided to try out my new pistol. I shot through the open window of our speeding car at a vulture tearing apart the carcass of a desiccated dog corpse. I missed. We drove through Puebla and walked through the market place both of us wearing our guns.


On day 23 we woke up and had a pineapple for breakfast and drove off to Oaxaca. In some little town we filled up the tank out of some gas cans by flashlight.
In Oaxaca we walked around the market place with our loaded guns and two guys grabbed me by the arms and said they were police and that we couldn't just walk around armed. They asked for money and Loren pulled out his biggest bill, a 100 peso note or $8.00. They removed the bullets from the cylinders and gave us our guns back. It didn't matter, we still had hundreds of rounds in the car.

Outside Oaxaca were the pre-Columbian ruins of Monte Alban and nearby Mitla, the place of the dead, an ancient Zapoteca site. Although we were told we would not be able to find anything, we found pottery shards and several stone and ceramic carvings crawling through the tunnels. At that time there were no guards, no tourists, and nobody to tell us that removing artifacts was illegal.


Afterwards we drove up the mountains and chased a terrified cow for a mile or so. The road was so narrow the poor cow had no place to go until the road widened.
I turned off the engine and we coasted 12 miles down hill on a dirt road. We stopped at a small town three and a half hours from our destination, Puerto Escondito on the coast and had a few beers. Very humid. We have traveled 3,600 miles. Somebody told us that the roads are flooded below. The engine blew a spark plug attached to the cable right out of the motor. Fixed it and were off again. There are many landslides here in the mountains making the road near impassable.
Finally we got into Puerto Escondito, good beach, crashing waves and warm water.
We swam and then slept on the beach.

The next morning we went to have breakfast and were told the road was definitely washed out. About 15 minutes later we came to a river, the Rio Grande. It was about three and a half feet deep. We convinced a truck driver to try and pull us across for 50 pesos. Half way across the rope broke and water began to leak in under the door. Retied the rope, started pulling, and it broke again. Finally we made it across and soon found another river, the Rio Verde which was not as deep but much wider. The current is much too strong to attempt a crossing. We drove to another part of the river which we were told is more than 20 feet deep and 50 yards across. Tomorrow supposedly there is a raft capable of transporting a car and will come and take us across. The raft is called La Balsa.

The water was rushing very fast. We woke up when six or so Mexican men were leaning on our car talking loudly. We went to the pier, no boat. Everyone says Manana. We are hot and sweaty and there are many mosquitoes. The raft, La Balsa, seems to have gotten stuck about a mile and a half up river from here.
Told again it comes tomorrow. Manana, Manana. The car runs fine except there is no power steering. There is a small basic cafe with hammocks where we will sleep tonight. The air is aglow with fireflies.

On the 29th day we woke up at about 8am. There were many birds in the trees. I grabbed my gun.
Loren caught a snake, some kind of constrictor. There was a bird above me with a long flat beak.
I shot it. We tore the antenna off the car, peeled off the feathers and cooked the bird over a fire.
We made friends with a Mexican man named Pablo who lent us 20 pesos because we are broke.
Finally La Balsa arrived but was on the other side of the river. We have got just enough money to get across but not enough for any food. We went to some outdoor movie, projected on a sheet, the credits began to roll but the generator that powered the projector ran out of gas.

Tonight we slept in a jeep. Woke up sore all over. Had a terrible cup of coffee with a thick layer of mud on the bottom, then drove 10 miles of bad dirt pot holed road back to camp where there were now many trucks waiting for La Balsa. My guts hurt badly, probably that scrawny jungle bird I ate. I fell asleep on the hood of our car exhausted and sick. We have been here in this rotten jungle for four days. I lost consciousness apparently and Loren continued to write the journal.


Leaving our car, Loren and Pablo carried me, out cold, to a small boat which took us across the river to a town where there was a doctor. I came back to consciousness with my trousers bunched around my ankles, two nurses holding me up under my shoulders, and the doctor, his knee in the small of my back pulling a bent syringe out of my ass. The nurses thought it was hilarious.

29th Day:
Soon I felt OK again. We took the small boat back across the Rio Verde and found that somebody had broken into our car stealing our travelers checks. We are broke again. La Balsa still wasn't running so we left our car locked up inside Pablo's truck, took the small boat across the river again, and caught a bus to Alcapulco. I can't stay here any longer, this jungle is killing me. We got as far as Pinotepa Nacional a town about 4 hours from Alcapulco and would catch another bus tomorrow. All the dogs down here are in terrible shape, missing legs, tumorous bumps, one eye, no hair or all the above. One poor critter got his back run over by a truck tonight, awful scream. We slept in a cheap hotel, no soap, rainy with a leaking roof. One bed for the three of us.

Finally caught the bus to Alcapulco along with Pablo and a bunch of squawking chickens. Loren is sick. As we sat there, some old woman shoved a tray through the window into Loren's face shouting, "enchiladas", and he vomited. Pablo's place in Alcapulco was on top of a hill. Took the first shower in 5 days by candle light in cold water. I called my mother and she said she would wire $50 bucks.


31st.Day:
We went to a restaurant high on a cliff where incredibly brave men dive into the ocean. There is a small altar with a crucifix and the divers kneel, say a prayer, and wait for an incoming wave to dive into. Survival is all in the timing. The place is called La Perla. It was very expensive so we left to find a cheap bar. Tried calling Loren's dad but the phone lines were down. Got drunk and met a complete crazy named Jesus Krump. Says he is past Kripes, his nephew is is Crunch and John the Baptist stole his pants because they wanted to "straighten things out" at the Ritz lobby but couldn't because John had to leave to baptize guys in the street. He told us about the vigilantes who burned down his house on the beach because of his nude pictures.
He says he moved up with Campbell Soup and Batman but got mad at them and put them in a crate jail and feeds them beans once a day every thirty days. The reason he is down here is because the government threw him out. He gets a pension check and asks for a raise. He likes President Johnson because he got it, of course Eisenhower recommended it because he wanted an extra $9 bucks a month.

The phone lines were back up so I called up my dad to help Pablo get into the USA. He said that he would send a letter stating that Mr. Pablo Besaril Ramos has work if he can enter the United States. Pablo almost cried. Later that night we bought a fifth of vodka and a bottle of orange juice. We went to an open air cafe and drank all of it. We got completely drunk. Loren got on a swing and cracked into the side. We limped down the street and I ran into a construction sign, fell into a hole, climbed out and fell into the gutter. Took a taxi and I threw up on the side. Got back to Pablo's and slept.

Day 35:
Lost a few days somehow. Pablo left to return to the jungle and get our car. The lady next door is terrific. She fixes our breakfast, washes our cloths and cares for her 9 kids. Pablo got back the next day with our car and Loren went down to pick up $150 bucks his dad sent. Just outside Alcapulco is a beach called Piedra la Questa where big waves roll in and it is perfect spot for body surfing. I was swimming quite far out when a wave returned from the beach pushing me backwards in to the sea. I looked up at a huge wave, 15 or 20 feet tall that came crashing down on top of me. It churned me around and held me down under the water, washing me up on the beach, my swimming trunks filled with sand, like discarded driftwood. Scared the hell out of me.

The next morning we would leave for Taxco. Counted our money and were short. I must have lost some in the ocean. We have gone more than 4,000 miles. We picked up a hitchhiker and his girlfriend. They had no money. I asked them how they made it and he said she sells her body to rich Americans. We drove through the mountains pouring rain which comes in through the door. Taxco is a beautiful city with cobble stone roads. Near the center of the city, the Zocalo, is the famous church. Checked into a hotel for $3 bucks and had the first hot shower in many days.

Day 38:
We visited many small jewelry shops. Silver is the reason for Taxco's wealth from the time of the Spaniards in the late 16th century. We bought several pairs of earrings, silver plates and rings. We left Taxco for Cuenavaca and all along the road Mexicans sell a variety of animals. Loren bought an armadillo and I bought a long green iguana. We drove through a check point and my iguana jumped up on the windshield. We had to pay 5 Pesos extra and got through. Now he just sits in the back of our station wagon and gives me the evil eye. So here we are with less than $2 bucks going into Mexico City. Broke again. A car was tailgating us and honking. As they passed by we flipped them off. They were four very tough looking guys who began swinging metal pipes out the window. I loaded up my 38 for trouble. We bombed up the highway trying to get away and as we passes them, I leaned out and fired off a few shots at the front their car. I must have hit something because their car slowed down with steam coming out of the hood.

We got into Mexico City but there were too many of us so Senor Gil put us up in a fine hotel, two rooms. The next morning we went off to Senor Gil's for breakfast. He told us we couldn't get the guns through the border so we returned both of them. Too bad I had really become attached to mine. Although Loren's armadillo didn't do much, my iguana was lead around the streets on a leash. We said goodbye to Senor Gil and his wonderful family and thanked them for their kindness. In the meantime the letter my father sent offering a job to Pablo had arrived.

We left Mexico City for Guadalajara about 10 hours away. Driving through forests, instead of Smoky the Bear, the Mexicans have Simon. The country turns to corn fields and it began to rain. Passed through Toluca and Pablo told me about his life. His parents abandoned him when he was very young. He got married and has a four year old daughter. When his wife left him she took any saving he had, he was broke except for an old truck which he drove day and night. He doesn't smoke or drink and prayed for a saint to end his life of misery and bad luck when into his life Loren and I came along. We passed through Morelia which has many ancient aqueducts. I wanted to take pictures but it was too late at night. I drove through Zamora at 4:30am. The road was curvy and dangerous but I want to make it to Guadalajara.

40th Day:
Finally made Guadalajara and went into a place to eat. A very young woman looking very old and grey asked if we were American. "Yes", we said, we are. She said she was broke so we paid for her meal. She said she needed money and when I looked at her arm I noticed what for. She had abscesses and chicken tracks from injections. She stashed the money in her bra and scuttled away. Poor woman.
On the outskirts of town is a glass blowing factory. They use glass from huge bins of broken coke bottles. I bought Mom a green decanter with 6 matching glasses.

We left for Mazatlan. a few hours out in the state of Nayarit is the town of Tepic. To the east of here in the Sierra Madre are a tribe of Indians called the Huichol. The Huichol are known for their peyote rituals and for their multi-colored intricate embroidery. We pulled in to a gas station to fill up and an old Huichol man in a straw hat ringed with feathers came over and offered me his shoulder bag lovingly made by his wife. I bought it and have it till today.

We drove through some black lava fields from an ancient volcanic eruption. Pablo drives through the treacherous mountains with rain so hard that it was difficult to see. Torrents ran off the sides of the hills. We stopped and fed Loren's armadillo some water and corn. We have almost no shock absorbers and the exhaust pipe was torn off by that pig I ran over. On the plains palm trees sprout up.
The sun sets red and orange behind the tattered black rain clouds behind us. We have driven over 5,000 miles. Slept in the car.

41st. Day:
We left the beaches of Mazatlan in the morning and crossed the Tropic of Cancer. The rains began again and as I passed some trucks, mud flew off them splat on the windshield blinding me. Loren hung out the window and wiped it off with a tee shirt. I was driving 80 miles an hour when a tarantula stepped out of the dashboard. We pulled over and let Loren's armadillo go. Poor guy is getting weak. The engine keeps stalling out. I have driven 500 miles today through Culiacan, Los Mochis, and Guaymas, I just want to get home. Sick of Mexico. We have about 300 miles left to the border at Nogales.

42nd Day:
Just woke up with only $10 bucks to our names. We won't eat today only enough to keep the car on the road. We drove to the border at Nogales and they wouldn't let Pablo across. We walked around for hours asking people how we could get him into the States. I showed them my fathers letter but we were denied.
Turns out we can't.
We all cried. Pablo had surely saved my life in that jungle. I held him and patted his back. We gave him all the money we had along with my address. Passed the border and got to Tucson with only 2 pesos and no American money. Mom wired me $50 bucks, enough to get home.

I figured we could drive all the way. First I got a ticket for no tail lights, no brake lights, and another for speeding. We lost the car registration so they checked us for a stolen car or to see if we were wanted. We weren't but had trouble starting the car. Finally it starts and we are off to California.
Suddenly the radio just stopped. We pulled in to a gas station and the car started rolling backwards in park with the emergency brake pulled back. Our transmission is bad cause we have a leak. Fill her up with fluid. Got stopped again by the police. He was going 110 miles per hour and almost crashed into the back of us as we have no tail lights. Somehow he let us off.
We rolled in to another gas station in Indio and we stalled out again. Some cop came over to check us out. He radioed in and another 2 cops come. Soon another squad car pulls up and all 5 of them ordered us out of the car. They tore the car apart looking for the big find but all that they found were a few firecrackers. They weren't interested in the sun bleached human skull.
They huddled together deciding what to do. One of them told us to follow him and he escorted us to a place to get our brake lights fixed.

Day 43:
We passed San Bernadino California as the sun rose. The car can only go 35 miles per hour top speed on the freeways.
Before reaching Fresno a rear tire ripped apart. We bought another retread for 5 bucks.



Finally after 43 days and more than 8,000 miles, we got back home safe and sound from our first thrilling adventure. The question "What did you do this summer", could be answered enthusiastically.
Who would believe us? Getting back to high school a few days later, we were the envy of our friends and for those skeptics who didn't believe our stories, we had the photographs to prove it.

End:








Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crossing paths with Headhunters in Burma

Who hasn't opened an old issue of National Geographic when they were a kid and looking with utter fascination, disgust and wide eyed amazement at the shrunken heads taken by such tribes as the Jivaro of the South American Amazon?
What kid hasn't wanted one of those creepy heads for themselves?
You kidding? Where can I get one?

Replicas were so popular that hobby shops sold shrunken rubber heads with stitched lips and eyelids.

In former times perhaps as little as one generation ago, two very different ethnic groups chose to
hunt human heads in Burma. One group are the Naga tribes of Burma's north west whose settlements straddle the border of India. Particularly the Konyak Naga were feared for taking heads in combat as a way to display their fierce courage. Arrows were driven through the eye sockets to prevent the spirits from finding their way back home.
That is one impressive set of trophies on your wall, Buddy.
Beats the hell out of bowling.


The other group of headhunters are the Wild Wa from northern Burma bordering China's Yunnan Province whose autonomous region boasted of whole villages whose walkways held human heads in various degrees of decomposition in stone lanterns. One such village was said to have an avenue of 300 such heads. Was it still there? Was it possible to visit?
Of course I had to find out if it was possible to find them.

Years ago in 1984, I was invited to a meeting by Abel Tweed the Foreign Minister of the Karenni Tribe deep into the jungle close to where the Moei River meets the mighty Salween River. Four hours in an 8 wheeled truck led to a river bank, the last outpost before we needed to take a long tailed boat maned by armed camouflaged soldiers up the turbulent river.

Karen children ran on the banks amidst fluttering butterflies with lengths of yarn hanging out of their earlobes.

Arriving at the camp, I was told that every one of the rebel leaders was here at this meeting of the National Democratic Front. General Bo Mya of the Karen, Brang Seng leader of the Kachin Independence Army and Ma Ha San the Prince of Vinghun, the leader of the Wa.
I wanted to meet him and to ask him to write me a letter of introduction so I could take photos of the Wild Wa.
I was told who to contact.
Every member was there.
"And he is here?".
"Yes, really".
"If you want to meet him now you can go along, he is staying in the house of my brother".

Walking over to a bamboo hut raised on wooden stilts, I walked up the stairs and entered a room silhouetted with figures sitting cross legged around a small fire drinking tea.
I sat down with my interpreter and was offered a cup.

Turning on my Sony Professional recorder I asked permission to record.
What followed was a remarkable interview with Ma Ha San, President of the Wa, one of the last living headhunters.

For those of you who have my book "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma", a new interactive edition has been published in Apple ibook. Utilizing the latest technology, we were able to combine 70 photos of more than 35 diverse Burmese tribal groups along with explanatory text from the Exhibition Edition
which was launched by Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kyi in Rangoon and combine that with short audio clips of tribal music including the 11 minute interview with a headhunter as relayed above.
Also the ibook has video clips of Aung San Suu Kyi's speech, and my speech at the opening of the exhibition as well as a video of me visiting the source of the Worlds Finest Gemstones, Mogok Burma in March 2014.

The brand new interactive ibook, The Vanishing Tribes of Burma can be purchased here for $4.99.

Order one now for the experience, the sights and sounds of a cultural world, which has, in many ways, already vanished.
Enjoy! https://itun.es/us/Ifjs4.l

Many thanks,

Richard K. Diran








Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Scandinavia

After the Ethnographic Exhibition in Rangoon Burma which was opened by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on September 28, 2013 was complete,

thevanishingtribesofburma.com

all 70 photographs were donated for permanent display in the National Museum of Burma/Myanmar, so it was decided that a new set of the 70 photos should be printed and travel to Stockholm Sweden, and then move to Oslo Norway for new exhibitions.

We arrived in Stockholm on a direct flight from Bangkok on the 2nd of May 2014. The event would not begin until the 6th of May, so we had a few days to relax at the Helsten Hotel, a beautiful elegant old hotel in the center of town.

We had called our old friend Andy Mccoy formerly the guitar player with a fantastic band called Hanoi Rocks and asked him and his wife to come visit. They were living in Helsinki Finland.
We had met Andy and the band years ago in Japan, then saw them perform in Bangkok Thailand.
After that we toured with them in England and watched them at the Lyceum Theater in London.
Andy came to stay with us in San Francisco, and I stayed with him in L.A in his house formerly owned by Rock Hudson. There he gave me a plexiglass guitar which Keith Richards had given to him, the one Keith played on the album Goats Head Soup.

It was wonderful catching up with him again. There is a statue of him in Finland and he is soon due to be issued on a postage stamp!
Walking the streets of Stockholm it was evident that many people recognized him. He later came over to our hotel with an acoustic guitar and played flamingo music like a gypsy.
Fantastic!

Andy came to the Stockholm opening where I gave my speech. He was accompanied by his friend a photographer named Oskar Ohlson who had photographed Lemmy from Motorhead, Johnny Winter,
Mink Deville and of course Andy. There were 150 Vanishing Tribes posters put up all over Stockholm for the event which opened on May 6th 2014.

After Stockholm our friend from the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, the oldest peace society in Sweden founded by a Nobel Laureate, packed up all 70 photos in a van and we drove towards Norway. We would stop on the way at our project manager's father-in-law's farm. There were a few Burmese traveling together with us who were also speakers at the events. One young woman who is incredibly courageous named Zin Mar Aung was a former political prisoner who spent 11 years in prison, 9 in solitary confinement.

In 2011 she received the Clinton and International Women of Courage Award. She has a great sense of humor and a compelling story. We were treated to home baked breads and barbecued moose.

After 2 nights in the glorious countryside of Sweden, our caravan drove off to Norway,
The event in Norway was hosted by Partnership for Change. My photos were set up in an opulent hall where the speakers included the former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik and Leymah Gbowee Nobel Peace Laureate 2011 whose role during the Women Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement was pivotal in ending the Liberian civil war in 2003. I also was able to give a short speech at the event which opened May 13th 2014.

After the Oslo event ended on May 15th, the photos were taken to Gothenburg, but my wife and I decided to have a look at Norway. Leaving by train from Oslo through beautiful scenery, we arrived at Flam a small town at the end of a 200 kilometer long fjord with towering snow covered mountains and lusty waterfalls. Flam also brews some very fine beers. We stayed overnight in Flam and departed by ship sailing west down the fjord.
Occasional villages dotted the way, miniature below the towering snow covered peaks far above tearing at the incessant lumbering storm clouds. Followed by screaming sea gulls and leaping dolphins we arrived at a town called Gudvagen. From here we took a bus on the Stalheimskleiven Road twisted with astonishing hairpin turns. It was May 17, Norwegian Independence Day. The streets of Voss were filled with families of flag waving revelers all dressed in traditional costume as if they had stepped out of a centuries old oil painting.


After a few hours in Voss we caught a train to Bergen. My wife's research had landed us the best hotel room in Bergen, the only one directly on the water. The old town of Bergen is a scene from a fairy tale with rows of pastel colored store fronts which are hundreds of years old. There is a fish market dating from 1296. Passenger liners, old sailing vessels, fishing boats, and expensive yachts line the waterways, and at night the ebb and flow reflects the sparkling colored lights of Old Bergen.

From Bergen we went directly back to Oslo, traversing Norway by train. Many of the mountain passes were still covered in a thick blanket of snow with temperatures of 4C. The next day we caught a direct flight from Oslo to Bangkok arriving at about 8am May 22nd. Bangkok was 37C or 100F. A few hours later martial law was declared, and then the army announced the coup d' etat with a country wide curfew from 10pm until 5am.

Never a dull moment!

END:











Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mogok the land of Rubies


The first thing that we do coming into this world is scream to be heard and then try and stand to be noticed.
It is the nature of being human.

Early in March 2014 I arrived back in Burma now known as Myanmar with the intent of traveling to Mogok,
fabled land of the world's finest rubies.The first order of business was to visit the Shwe Dagon Pagoda rising majestically above Rangoon, gold covered, gem encrusted, legend infused, whose construction is said to have been started during the life of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago.
Walking around the massive bell shaped pagoda clockwise I stopped at the animal which represents the day of the week I was born. When you ask a Burmese citizen their birthday, they will answer a day of the week, in my case, Thursday represented by the Rat .Rats are industriousness, intelligent and always seem to be the first creatures off a sinking vessel.

I had been assured by friends in Yangon that it would be "No Problem" to go up to Mogok although I thought that I would need special permission. I assumed that what I was being told was correct.
My old Burmese friend and I flew up to Mandalay from where the last kings ruled Burma. It was from here
that King Thibaw was deposed and sent by the British into exile in India. He croaked in penury.

From the airport we drove to a cave pagoda called Datdawtaung near a town called Kyaukse which was isolated and a few hours drive down unpaved dirt roads. There were no signs and when the road would fork we had to wait for someone coming along to give us directions .Finally we arrived at the base of the hills and began to climb. climb and climb. Some of the bricks in the stairway were large tablets of the same era as the Pagan period proving that this place had been visited for many centuries. After several hours climbing ever upwards we came to the entry way of the natural cave with long dripping stalactites and huge stalagmites. Below was a gold covered reclining Buddha at least 75 feet long. Other than a monk and a friendly dog, there were no other visitors.

The next morning we drove out of Mandalay on the new road to Mogok. About 40 miles out, a remote controlled bomb had injured 3 people a week ago including the Chief Minister of Mandalay General Ye Mying. I had heard that this road was closed but clearly it is not. We stopped at a Shan Restaurant and I had a Myanmar beer and soft boiled eggs served submerged in a bowl of hot water. A Shan girl peeled a banana and ate it out of the skin with a spoon.

After several hours the driver told me to lay down in the back seat concealing myself. This didn't sound good. We stopped at a check point which was serious. "No Foreigners Allowed Beyond This Point" read the sign. A young guard with a G-3 machine gun opened the back door of the car where I lay down hiding.
 "Bad stomach",says I.
"Yeah right'.






The driver and my Burmese friend were escorted into Mogok where they were told that I needed to apply for the proper paper work to gain entry to
Mogok
"No problem" became "big problem". and we were forced to return 6 hours down the hills back to Mandalay. $150 bucks up, $150 back.
I again checked in to the Shwe Phyu Hotel and sent my Burmese friend back to Rangoon to apply for the proper papers.
This left me with several days of nothing to do but to explore Mandalay. I found an old friend, a Shan who accompanied me to the Mandalay Jade market. The Chinese buyers will take a day trip from Yunnan, buy their jadite and return the same day. I was looking for multi-colored pieces, but there were few to be had and the prices were crazy. Like so many of the stones in Burma, the Chinese had inflated the prices of jade beyond the world market.

I went to see the Mahamuni Buddha taken from Rakhine State centuries ago. The faithful press sheets of pounded gold leaf on the statue which is now several inches thick.

It began to feel like "Ground Hog Day" where waking up is a repeat of the day before. I found a reliable motorcycle taxi driver named Win who would drive me around Mandalay and see the sights. In the afternoon when it became really hot, we would go down to the port and watch the boats unload clay jars and screaming hogs.

In one area of town all the shop houses were engaged in the carving of a pure white marble lending an eerie
ghostly layer of white powder over everything including the carvers. The subject of the carving was almost entirely that of seated Buddhas. I asked about where this marble was quarried and was told there was a marble mountain about an hour and a half drive from here in Mataya Township.The mountain did indeed have a massive seam of pure white marble being quarried by earth moving machines.

I spent time looking at over priced stones of mediocre quality, but I did see a large optically clear piece of
quartz crystal with an interesting inclusion of hexagonal crystal inside which was probably just dark quartz. Even for this the owner asked $5,000!

There was a traditional dance show which I photographed, and I had such traditional culinary offerings such as chicken anus, luckily unstuffed.

Finally after 10 days of eating Mandalay dust, and fighting mosquitoes as big as birds, my Burmese friend called from Rangoon to tell me that the permission papers were complete, and that he would fly back to Mandalay with them the next morning. Promptly at 9am we left Mandalay.
Hours after leaving the sizzling plains, and climbing into the mountains, the temperature dropped and became refreshingly cold. Having my paperwork in order, immigration was a breeze and we passed into Mogok, fabled land of the world's finest rubies, sapphires, peridot and bright red spinel.

I had completed photographing more than 45 different tribal groups out of what the government says are a total of 135. This erroneous number is perhaps from General Ne Win himself who altered the number from 142 to add up to his favorite astrological number 9. 1 plus 3 plus 5 is 9. Even 135 is wrong as even the Chin themselves are listed as 53. Fifty tribes out of 135?
Baloney.

Now a census is being done in Myanmar. This census is to determine how state funds should be allocated to the various groups. There are 41 questions on the census. One is of religion. Animist is a choice, the box I would check. One is of ethnicity. In Kachin State the Kachin Independence Organization will not take part.in this census. How can they grant access to their territory when they are at war?

This will not be done. There's 2 million missing from the list.
Karen State government refuses to allow villagers evicted from their homes by the Burmese military to move into rebel held territory. A census here can not be done.
Same with the Northern Shan State, North East Kachin State or Karrini State, the Chin Hills or Nagaland.

Hello Konyak Naga, how many in your household? Aggha, don't cut off my head! Good luck there.

Wa State will take their own census.
The Rohinga can only be listed as Bengali. Unlike the Maramagji, the Shakama, the Mro, and Daignet who live in Arakan State and are listed as distinct ethnic groups, the Rohingya are not on the list. What do you check if you are not on the list?
Are they not part of the fabric of what is Burma?

No ethnic group can choose more than one ethnic category. What category shall the Rohingya choose?
What about a mixed heritage?
 A Maru and a Jinghpaw?
A Khaku and a Lashi?
A Burman and a Azi?
Some groups are listed twice under different names. Other groups like the Banyok of Kayan State who were described by Scott in 1900, a tribe that used to bind the heads of their children to appear as cone heads have vanished.

What if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running for president next year 2015 because she had married a foreigner, and has children with British citizenship. Will she be barred from contesting the election and to not be able to complete a Mandella like transformation from political prisoner to head of State?

I will not speculate. I ain't on the census. Honkey ain't a category.

Ethnographic inclusion to the Union of Burma is part what got General Aung San, Daw Suu Kyi's father assassinated only six months after concluding the Panlong agreement in 1947 giving certain tribes autonomy under a federal system. Ethnicity. A very touchy subject in a country where the diversity of tribes are perhaps the most varied in the world.

 Beside wanting to look at the source of the best stones in the world, to visit Mogok, is for a gemologist as necessary as a  Muslim entering Mecca,

I was also interested in seeking the local tribes of that area. Our driver is a Lisu and knows of a village nearby of Shwe Palaung, the Golden Palaung. Previously I had photographed the Pale Palaung close to Kalaw in Southern Shan State, and the Silver Palaung near Kengtung. The Shwe Palaung do not wear these cloths everyday, as those other groups do, but they are stored at the monestary and only worn during the festival days. The blouse is incredibly ornate and stiched with tiny glass beads. The girls were very playful and aware of their own beauty.

High in the hills of Mogok close to a huge sapphire mine is a village called Stone Elephant. The rock formations here are of weathered marble jutting out of the earth like sharp teeth.There was an old Lisu woman I found in her kitchen boiling water. Her dress was also particular to this area near north west Shan State. Other Lisu I had photographed such as the smiling girl on the cover of my book, Vanishing Tribes lived near the Thai border of south east Shan State. Another style of dress was that of the Bhamo Lisu with broad stripes who lives in north east Shan State. And then there was a lovely girl who is a Lisu from Putao, northern most Kachin State. She and her dance troupe happened to be visiting Mogok and was eager to be photographed.

Mogok is indeed a magic place with fog filled valleys and huge trees. The incredible diversity of gem stones mined here and offered in the gem market everyday has been happening for many hundreds of years.
It will I suppose continue until Mogok has given up the last of her treasures.

END
















.






Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winter in Japan

Over the New Year celebration my wife and I went to Japan. Deep in the mountains of the Japanese Alps
is a very ancient town called Hida Takayama. Some of my wife's family lives there and some of her school friends.
Neolithic stone implements can be found there proving that it has been an inhabited for thousands of years.
During the Heian Period, two powerful clans, the Genji warrior clan, and the Heike who were a more of an aristocratic clan  fought a war which saw the Genji defeat Heike in 1185 AD. Many of the Heike fled from Kyoto, their former seat of power to the Hida Takayama area and
continued their artistic culture.



.

The town has many beautiful and original buildings from the Edo Period from 1600 to 1868.

Close to Takayama is Shirakawago which is a world heritage site, a very mountainous and cold region. Until very recently Shirakawago was extremely remote but  tunnels were bored through the mountains making access to that region easy.

There is a Japanese style inn run by an eccentric old man with a wispy white beard who owns the mountain where bear still roam. He brews his own sake. He sprays water on the trees creating a crystal ice forest one frozen layer at a time. If the temperature is sub-zero, he will step outside and make soap bubbles which freeze instantly and float through the forest like glowing orbs. At minus 10 degrees Centigrade, the large flowing bubbles crystallize as dancing glass spheres reflecting the colored lights hidden in the ice.


End.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Vanishing Tribes of Burma



httm/p://vieo.com7498280
 




 "I want to thank all of you who made this exhibition possible, and particularly, Mr. Richard K. Diran
for bringing beauty into my life at an unexpected time".

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
September 28, 2013


In 1980 I was only two years from having graduated from the Gemological Institute of America.
I decided to travel to the source of the world's finest colored gemstones, Burma. Burma produces the
finest rubies, sapphires, jade, pearls, peridot  and rare stones in the world. As I began doing business
in Rangoon, I thought that I would travel further afield upcountry, closer to the mining areas to increase
the selection of goods, and reduce the prices.

In 1983 I flew in to Heho Airport in Shan State in between Kalaw to the West and Taunggyi to the East.
Landing there I noticed a group of women standing outside the gates dressed in black tunics with coils of
brass rings around their ankles, and heads piled high with turbans. They were completely unlike the Burmese
I had encountered in Rangoon, or the tribes I had seen in Thailand. I discovered that they were called the Taungyo and had villages in the hills not so far from here.

I decided to find a guide who could lead me there and thus began my 25 year journey to record on film
and on tape all known tribal groups of the most ethnically diverse nation on earth, Burma. Nearby where
the Taungyo lived were villages of Palaung, Pa-o, Shan and Danu, along with the Intha leg rowers of Inlay Lake.

Researching the old literature of Lowis in 1919, Major C.M. Enriquez 1923 and Stevenson in 1944, I came across a British commissioner called Sir George Scott who was ordered to compile a list of all
known tribes, their customs, languages and traditions. His 5 volume series of thick books called "The
Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States" was published in Rangoon in 1900. His book became my
tribal bible, and I was determined to follow in his footsteps and  record all known tribal groups.

At that time only a 7 day visa was extended. Travel was difficult, roads scarce and turned to deep mud in
the rainy season. Communication was nearly impossible with crackling phone lines operated by red and black phone wires plugged into a switch board by hand, not having changed since the 1930's. Phones were
so scarce that a phone number may have been only 2 digits, like 45. I also communicated by telex machine which had a huge spool of yellow paper maybe an inch wide which you fed into a machine that punched holes for letters. This ribbon of paper was then fed in to the machine and came out on the receiving side in words.

Often I would have to use the 7 day visa to set up contacts for the next trip, return to Bangkok, obtain
another visa and go upcountry where my contacts would take me to the tribal groups I wanted to photograph .Lucky for me the gem business was lucrative and financed my ethnic journeys. I became
known as a purveyor of fine gem stones. At that time my wife and I lived in San Francisco, she running
a very successful Japanese restaurant called Fuki-Ya, a country style place that was the first robata-yaki
type eatery in America.

In March of 1988 I was in Rangoon when some local students clashed with local people over which
music was being played in a teashop. A fight ensued and one student was injured and the culprit arrested.
The next day March 13, the culprit was released and a few hundred students marched down to the People's Council office to protest. Riot police clashed with the students and one student Maung Phone Maw was shot dead. In the following days thousands of students were arrested and scores killed. This was the beginning of' the unrest. Soon thousands would be killed, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would return to Rangoon to attend  to her dying mother. I left Rangoon on March 17 1988 and did not re-enter until July 1989 when the visa period was extended for 14 days.


I rented a large colonial style house on Kaba Aye Road with a circular entry way, hardwood floors which
my staff polished with motor oil and coconut husks to a gleaming luster. There were only five colors of paint to choose from in the shops, so every one of the five bedrooms was painted a different color. Martial law was still in place with a curfew at 9pm. Anyone on the streets after that hour risked being shot. We set up a sound system with huge speakers and a Chinese amplifier playing Motor Head which could be heard 2 blocks away. Oh the parties. Anybody at the parties was compelled to stay over night. Somehow the authorities left me alone. My rent was $1,000 USD per year.




 My wife and I kept the Rangoon house for 3 years, 1989, 1990 and 1991.

We sold the restaurant in 1989 after 10 years of successful business just before the San Francisco
earthquake in October 1989. In 1993 we packed up nearly everything in the San Francisco house and
moved to Thailand. The commute was getting to be too long. I continued my travels to Burma and continued buying fine gemstones. I met a local businessman who was the son-in-law of the Burmese strong man U Ne Win who had ruled Burma for 25 years. He had married General Ne Win's favorite daughter became my direct sponsor. I was then allowed to obtain visas to Burma for one year after visiting the Embassy and raising my hand to swear that I was "free of political taint".

It was this I suppose that kept the authorities from preventing my travel to remote areas of the country, the fact that they knew I had no interest whatsoever in their politics. On one trip to Kayah State or Karrini State as those who live there call it, my airplane landed in Loikaw the capital. I was there to meet a friend who was arranging to bring some of  the ethnic minorities closer to where I could freely photograph them since Karrini State was clearly an insurgent area. Even being allowed to fly there was highly unusual. Everyone on the plane, all of whom were Burmese were ordered to disembark. The seats were bent over horizontal and the aircraft was loaded with wounded soldiers fresh from the battle field, some missing limbs, some with half a face missing from shrapnel. They would be transported to Taunggyi Hospital only 97 miles away.
I dared not even take a photograph.

By 1996 I had nearly completed my list of tribes in nearly every corner of the country. I returned to Rakine
State or Arakan State, Kachin State, for more photos, and then to the Naga Hills when the government for the first time allowed foreigners to witness Naga New Year. Walking into the hills around Khamti I heard in the distance cries of warriors who were running, screaming carrying ox hide shields and long spears wearing woven cane hats with monkey fur, hornbill feathers, wild boar tusks, strands of human hair and chins ringed with tiger claws. They wore belts and aprons of cowery shells. Some of these men had certainly taken human heads as trophies in the not too distant past.

In 1997 Lord Weidenfield and Nicholson agreed to publish my book, "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma"
which was launched at the United Nations London for "The Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples".
It was widely recognized to be the most complete and comprehensive ethnographic study of the tribes
of Burma since Scott nearly one hundred years ago. The book was later published in New York by Amphoto and then in France by Grund. In 2000 Vanishing Tribes came out in paperback.

In 2000 a journalist who was working for Time Magazine called me and asked
if I would like to go find a mysterious lake called Nawng Hkeo in the Wa Autonomous Region in Burma near the Chinese border together with him. This lake was in Wa folklore the place where the Wa people emerged as tadpoles and had not been seen since V.C Pitchford in 1937. Although we were unable to find that fabled lake, we did see where it was, shrouded in clouds. Later he did return and was successful. I did
however get some pictures of Wa women with long silver drums in their ears looking exactly as Scott had seen them 100 years earlier.

By 2001 I took a trip up the Kaladan River to Mrauk-U in Arakan State. From there I rode a jungle boat up the Lemro River to its source where I had read accounts of another group of tattoo faced women called the M'Gan. Although listed in literature there were no photographs. I believe that I was the first to photograph them.

Earlier this year my wife had a vivid dream about holding an exhibition of my photographs in a huge room where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be in attendance. The room was completely packed with spectators and media. When she woke up she suggested that I do the exhibition.  I spoke to one good friend who like me has spent many years in Burma. Currently he was working with a major oil corporation who it seemed were willing to sponsor such an exhibition. The funding was contingent upon them completing a deal in what is now Myanmar for oil terminal facilities. I spoke to another Burmese lady who knew Daw Suu personally. I asked if it was possible to have Daw Aung San Suu Kyi commit to attending the event. She was. Years earlier, in 1998 when Daw Suu was still under house arrest I asked a certain embassy to bring her a copy of my book "Vanishing Tribes". Daw Suu wrote me a beautiful letter saying that she hoped someday that we could meet.

Unfortunately the oil company could not finalize their business at that time, and the exhibition date was cancelled. Another dear friend from Sweden, put together a proposal for the exhibition which was submitted to the Swedish Postcode Lottery who funds humanitarian and artistic endeavours. They in turn funded the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, the oldest peace organization in the world established by another Nobel Prize winner in 1883.as an organizer of this event.  I would have preferred to hold the event in November, but as Parliament would be in session,  Daw Suu would have to be in the new capital. We asked for a firm date.
I received word that she would be available on September 28th 2013.

Preparation time was very short. We selected 70 photographs on Kodachrome 64 slide film and I had them scanned to disk at 100mb. I found a publisher here in Bangkok who did quality work and sat down with them day after day to lay the new book out. We found an event coordinator who did award winning events like MTV Asia, Mercedes Benz etc... The only venue for the event was the Ballroom at the Inya lake Hotel since it was opulent and monumentally huge, with 50 foot tall ceilings and a fluted cupola in the top. The room is circular with a raised and lower area. Built by the Russians in 1958, it was perfect. The event coordinators walked in to the ballroom and instantly had the complete vision of design concept.  In the center of the ballroom a big tree would be erected and painted white. The tree would link to the ceiling. Fog machines would be installed, music, lights dimmers, not just a gallery show, this would be drama.

The 70 images were printed on the highest quality paper 100cm X 65cm and hung on grey panels. Each image would have its separate light. Invitations were printed, emails sent to embassies, ambassadors, business people both local and foreign. The media was notified trough press conference television, newspapers, magazines.....
Two full days were spent setting up the event. Billboards were erected on Prome Road and on Kaba Aye Road. "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma" with the image of an Akha girl on a black background. A striking image, it was the same one used by the United Nations in London, but this one was huge!

We walked through the event with Daw Suu's cousin and security team. It was agreed that rather than having her walk down the long hallway from the hotel's front entrance, her car could be taken around to the back near the lake and she could enter the waiting room. On the morning of September 28th at 11:30am, Daw Suu's convoy drove up to the entrance of the waiting room.  Outside the guests were packed in the hallways, and outside at the terrace, many dressed elegantly for the opening.  My wife and I were in the waiting room with Swedish Peace people and organizing staff. Some of them had flown in just for the occasion.  Daw Suu entered the room and walked directly over to my wife and I.. She was radiant. Holding both of my hands and looking in to my eyes, I said, "Well it has been 15 years since you said that you hoped one day we would meet, and now that day has come". "Ah so you got my letter", she said. Until then she had not even known that I had received her letter.

I, along with Daw Suu and the chairwoman from the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society walked through the curtain and around the room to the front. Crowd of film media were already assembled in the ballroom. Each of us were given a pair of gold scissors, and on queue, held a section of ribbon and cut, opening the exhibition. People flooded into the ballroom, cameras flashed and the crowds jostled for space. The three of us then walked up to the podium. Chairwoman was the first to speak, and then introduced me. I gave my speech and she again stepped up to the podium and introduced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  Daw Suu Kyi gave a speech about peace and national reconciliation. She also said "Thank you to Mr. Diran for bringing beauty into my life when it was least expected". My hair stood up!. I then presented her with a new copy of "Vanishing Tribes" and my wife presented her with a bouque of yellow and red roses. My wife wore yellow silk as did Daw Suu.

When the speeches were finished I led the way around the exhibition with Daw Suu holding my wife's hand. Daw Suu's security team tried to keep the photographers and spectators from crushing us, but it was a mad scrum with everyone wanting to be close to her. Who could blame them. A congressional gold medal recipient who was also a Nobel Prize winner. Perhaps the most widely recognized woman in the world.......

At one point the panels holding the photos almost came over with three people pushing from the other side to keep the wall from going over. Daw Suu was completely composed. As we walked around the event, she commenting on each photograph, asking details about which English King was portrayed on a silver coin around a girl's neck, about the long years of wear of a yellowing tiger tooth worn by a Naga warrior.

The crowd continued the crush as there were perhaps 500 people all trying to get close to Daw Suu.
At one point near a portrait of a young girl with extraordinarily long hair nearly sweeping the ground. Daw Suu turned to my wife and I and said that when she was young she used to have hair down to about here, marking a place near her knee. At that she looked down and said, "Oh somebody lost their shoe".. Indeed somebody had, there were that many people scrumming.  I got lost twice and found my bearings only by remembering which picture was in which part of the ballroom.

In all Daw Suu Kyi spent a full hour with us walking around the exhibition looking at and commenting on each and every picture. When we had completed walking around both levels of panels, looking at each of the 70 images, Daw Suu, my wife and I walked her through the curtains to her convoy of three vehicles, and entering, she sped away.

The next day and the day after the event was open to the public for free, and the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society through their local staff arranged for bus loads of school children, hundreds of monks, deaf kids and college students to be brought in. Some of the students sat on the carpet taking notes of the names of the tribal groups and in which part of the country they lived. So many people both young and old thanked me for showing them the diverse people who lived here within the borders of Myanmar.
They had never seen them.

At the conclusion of the exhibition on the third day, the Minister of Culture and the Director of the National Museum were presented with the entire set of the 70 photographs for their permanent collection in a hand over ceremony. The photographs will be displayed in the National Museum on Yangon for the Myanmar people to study the ethnic groups and their traditional culture comprising this country for future generations.


END:







Thursday, April 4, 2013

Meeting President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka



When we arrived in Sri Lanka on March 17, 2013, we were given our invitations by some very influential friends to attend the opening of the new international airport at Hambantoda on the following day. My camera was inspected upon entering the grounds and a yellow sticker was attached which read :'Checked Presidential Security Division". 

We walked around the new terminal in the blinding heat of the morning to the VIP section B. There were thousands of people assembled and tens of thousands more behind the ropes for a glimpse. The Chinese built control tower loomed high in the background with the same architecture as the Chinese Olympic stadium in Beijing with its birds nest design.

Everyone was given a brown greasy bag with a hot dog inside, and a bottle of water. On the stage sat a dignified assemblage of orange clad Buddhist monks, politicians and business men. Speaker after speaker took to the podium to acknowledge this grand achievement.

Debilitating hours later with people actually fainting from heat stroke, some carted away in ambulances, an announcement was broadcast that the president would soon arrive. On several big screens his passenger jet aircraft was shown on approach, monks were loudly chanting, until his jet with a rubbery screech landed. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first passenger to disembark at this, the Rajapaksa International Airport. As he strode across the tarmac in his signature white tunic and burgundy scarf, the crowd erupted in cheers.



Another speech, and then another, one being translated from Chinese to Sinhalese, hundreds of costumed dancing girls with their burning bare feet, the military bands, the flyover in formation by the air force jets ripping low over head creating a massive sonic boom, and then the president took to the stage and spoke. Several other international jets landed from a variety of countries. After this, the opening ceremony was over and everyone filed out to the parking lots.

Our three cars were brought up and we all retired to Dixon Dela's the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the Maldives who has a bungalow on the Indian Ocean near Yala National Park where leopards roam, and peacocks dart through the foliage.We took a rest before lunch. Dixon showered and dressed in perhaps the loudest shirt I have ever seen since Jimmy Hendrix sang "Purple Haze" at the Fillmore.



We then drove to a resort called "The Safari" which served a buffet of mostly curries, which I am sick of eating, so I had fish and chips.

Later in the evening we also had invitations to dinner and cocktails at a private reception inside the new airports terminal. After a few glasses of fine red wine, and numerous finger foods and fudge brownies, President Rajapaksa entered and walked around greeting everyone.




A very impressive fellow, he like so many other world leaders carries a blinding aura of power and invincibility. Hey, any time you are eating dinner with the guy whose face happens to appear on the money you are spending, it is all is a bit overwhelming.