Pictures of Involuntary Memory

December 15, 2010  •  Leave a Comment

I am a slave to involuntary memory; cues encountered in my everyday life that evoke strong recollections of the past without conscious effort. That, coupled with a peculiar inability to consciously remember ordinary life experiences, has made me the most self analytical of people, forever worrying the memories I do have, causing my wife great frustration or anger at my day to day inability to remember what she thinks I should.

Large swaths of my past are gone, providing great grist for some former therapists; I cannot remember – and generally don't care - what I did last Tuesday but a certain smell or taste or sound will bring up full, almost three dimensional memories of some trip I've taken.

What I do remember are the experiences that seem meaningful in some permanent way; little episodes that seemed almost unimportant at the moment but now I remember as having taught me something. Perhaps that is why I love photography so much. Isn't that what a photographer does – isolate important portions of the milieu and present that to the viewer?

And these memories have informed my current life and giving me a better place to which I can retreat when minor day to day annoyances loom larger than they should. I have learned the most from traveling in places where I do not share the ease of a common language with the people I meet. Ease of language makes it simple for people to construct a wall that separates them from me. Without a language, we seem to communicate much more simply and thus allows the better, deeper motives to display themselves.

This last January, I was in Myanmar, in a small city on the eastern edge called Hpa An. Hpa An was off the routine tourist route without much for tourists to see and there were only 10 or 12 Westerneers in the town. There were none of the usual tourist-level transport that often carts Westerners direclty from scenic destination to scenic destination and so, in order to get to my next destination, I needed to take a series of ordinary bus rides involving two connections at even smaller towns. Hpa An, while not a center for Western tourists is the capital of one of the war lord states, a center for smuggling across the border in and out of Thailand so there are lots of local travelers, lots of activity and lots of buses.


circle where all the buses stop


 I had bought my bus ticket at a store front in the town center where mostly radios and MP3 players, etc were sold. Interestingly, in a country where there are few private autos, there are hundreds of buses and but companies which provide transport both short and long distances along marginal roads between every town. Buses are often jam-packed full with people in the aisles, on the steps to the doors and on the roof, yet the actual seats are numbered and seemingly reserved for the first comers who buy tickets.

I had been directed to the square where the bus tickets were sold. Since selling tickets is a sideline for the shops, I could only find where the tickets for the correct bus were sold by looking in each store for the tell-tale pad sitting on the counter and saying, with terrible pronunciation I'm certain, my destination. After two or three abortive attempts, someone took me by the arm and led me to the correct store where the counter person would sell me a ticker.

Buddhist nuns and monks get the best seats in all public conveyances, both out of respect and also in recognition of the stringent rule that they must not touch a person of the opposite gender. In most bus trips, the buses are so jammed that prolonged physical contact with other people is virtually a certainty. If there are no monks (there are many fewer nuns), the best seats, those just behind the driver, are then given to foreigners.

The ticket seller had a grid square diagram covered with plastic on the counter top and, before issuing my ticket started erasing and re-entering text, obviously making space for me. Then he took my money and issues my ticket, handwritten in Bamar, and written, on the place where my name should be, the simple word 'forigner' (sic). 

The next morning, I showed at the designated time and waited for the bus. My fellow travelers, all Burmese, were not shy about inspecting me. A Westerner, traveling on a local bus, was a certain object of curiousity.

my bus - better looking from a distance



I was a little nervous about finding where I had to get off and find the next bus. The guide book had instructions that were, in retrospect, correct but frighteningly in-explicit. I had only a little idea of how long this leg of the trip should take and so kept a sharp eye for some sign, anything written in English that would give me a hint if I was close. Finally, just after passing through a sizeable town, I looked back and saw a sign announcing a Danish economic development project in the town I was looking for, now three km behind me.

I yelled out to the bus driver saying only the name of my final destination; he immediately pulled over with the passengers of the entire front half of the bus voicing comments. Luckily we were in front of a roadside cafe and, after he off-loaded my bags and put them in the shelter of their overhead, he gave me explicit instructions on how to get to the next stage of my trip.

Unfortunately, his instructions were in Bamar and I understood not one word. Knowing he was losing time, I thanked him with the one word of Bama I knew and shook his hand. Several of the passengers smiled and waved goodbye as the bus drove away.

There was a restaurant right in front of me, I hadn't eaten or drunk for 6 hours and with no other immediate plans, so I sat down and ate, attracting no more attention in that roadside restaurant in rural Myanmar than would, say, an Eskimo in Alabama. There was a great deal of conversation and many sidelong looks at me. Eventually, after I finished my meal and was lingering over a bottle of beer, a man wearing a western style shirt came over to my table and addressed me in English. He asked if I was lost and I explained that I was going to Kinpun but I had missed the stop and had no idea of what I was going to do. He said that he could help.


I grabbed my camera bag and he took my knapsack and we walked across the road to the side of the traffic going back into town, the direction I needed to go. We waited for three or four minutes and, inevitably, a local truck/bus came along. (These are small Japanese trucks or scooter fronts with a little open passenger cabin in the back that can hold a seemingly infinite number of people.) He flagged the bus down and explained my predicament. My bag and camera bag went up on top and I jumped on the back step, along with the 3 or 4 other men already holding on, waving goodbye  as I left.


So there I was, improbably, bucketing along this bumpy highway 12,000 miles from home, in the dust and the sun – just having a great time. I was a little concerned about the camera bag and the ten grand of equipment so every time it vibrated away I pulled it close to me, using one hand for the bag and one hand for holding on. The man next to me yelled to a teen who was sitting on the roof and the teen moved over and put his leg over the bag, holding it in place and then smiled at me. The same man then tugged on my hat, now hanging on my neck and patted his head, clearly urging me to put on the hat. Mad dogs and Englishman, you know.

Every time I went to move my hat on, the truck lurched and I swung dangerously, held on by only one hand. I was willing to chance heat stroke rather than let one hand stray too far from the bar. And then it happened, that insignificant little thing that I remember so strongly. The two little men, one on other side of me, not more than 5 foot, 4 inches, each put one arm around me and held me solidly up on the back of the lurching truck while I pulled my hat on. That simple strong pressure across my back, the touch of these helpful strangers stays with me now.

In ten minutes we were in town at the market place; the driver stopped while everyone explained to a bike-cab driver where I needed to go. I again said my single work of Burmese, Mingalaba, shook their hands and waved to them as they left.

typical bike-cab



Another ten minutes of frantic peddling – large Westerner and bags – and I was politely dumped at another bus stop where I waited for yet another bus for the last leg of this day.

bus for the next leg of the trip - again the only Westerner in sight


 Perhaps it is over-sentimentalizing but so what. A strong wind in my face and the hot sun immediately brings back that day. I remember that day, I remember the people who helped me and most of all, I remember that solid pressure across my back, holding me safely in place while this big, pink foreigner got his hat on.

 (please take into account that these pictures are to help the viewers to understand the situation and are not for artistic value.- because as pictures, they're not much.

Lew )


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