Crew of the Artist's Impression carving mud steps into the hillside in the rain.

Crew of the Artist’s Impression carving mud steps into the hillside in the rain.

Sunday 23 October

Don’s back!

He and his wife reboarded up-river from Mandalay where he had been the week’s most exciting case in not just one, but two hospitals. The second hospital called in its leading professor of cardiology and assembled a team of students to see Don go through multiple examinations. It turns out that he had accidently overdosed on steroids, thus his malady was self-inflicted. While the professor was checking Don’s functions he found evidence of a previous heart attack. This pleased Don no end because now he has a new chapter to relate in his battle against bodily malfunction. He should have rubbed everything available at that previous temple with the magic statues from Cambodia. He is now doing the rounds again at meal times to bring everybody up to date.

This morning the cruise had scheduled an underwhelming visit to a Yandabo pottery factory – but that did not include a monsoon rain storm. Down it came, while the crew assembled its high-wire walkway to the sandy bank. Trouble was that we would have to clamber up the bank to begin our walk to the pottery factory. While the bottom was sand, most of the climb was over mud. The crew jumped overboard and cut steps into the mud, not the best option for sturdy building construction, I would have thought. The platoon, watching from the disembarkation point in the library, grew increasingly apprehensive. There were mutinous mutterings, resulting in a high percentage of defections. I wanted to brave the mud steps but Michelle threatened terrible retribution if I did, so I joined the mutineers, secretly hoping that some of the brave would come slithering down the slope and land in the river. None did, but the visit got a unanimous thumbs down when many of the foot soldiers, sopping and dirty, returned short of the target pottery factory.

Hotel toaster report

Once again Myanmar has produced a masterpiece in hotel toasters, aboard the Artist’s Impression, no less. When set up for breakfast, the dining room staff brings out its Burmaburner, maritime model. While this looks like your average feed in at the top and delivery at the bottom front tray, it is not. When I put in my three piece of nice rye bread, one came sliding into the front tray, a second dropped out the back while the third shot beneath the bread box. This is the most entertaining hotel toaster in my experience. The platoon members do not appreciate the novelty of ‘hunt the toast’. They get cranky when they put in their bread and no toast is forthcoming. They even blame the omelette chef for playing games, especially when he picks up their toast from the floor like a magician producing an object that everybody thought was somewhere else.

One of the problems, I suspect, is that there is no toast captain and the toaster is left to its own devices. It falls into the same category as our minibar fridge. Four refrigeration engineers appeared yesterday to remove our non-cooling bar fridge and fit a new one. This took quite a while with much debate among the engineers before they plugged it in. Now we have a fridge that then took a full day to go below room temperature but at least the free beer is drinkable.

I’ve got an inexplicable enthusiasm for palm sugar and was overjoyed when we clambered up the bank to visit a village specialising in the production of palm sugar liquor and palm sugar sweets. It is all made very much by hand. The palm flowers are boiled down to a caramel coloured syrup and peanut oil is added to bind it. The ladies of the village earn four dollars as day to produce what looks like caramel lollies. They handed them around to taste. Disappointingly, the peanut oil had won over the sugar. My plan to buy enough to bring home for a palm sugar party had to be abandoned.  Even though the platoon expressed joy at inspecting the village, there was little remarkable about pigs lying in mud, families of chickens, curious children and the occasional white cow. It has a water purification plant which is never used. The village prefers the light brown, cloudy stuff straight from the river. A platoon colleague tried to calculate how long we would survive if we had to eat and drink like the locals. He thought about a week. I agree. Having said all that, I’m sure these people live a far less stressed life than we do.

Monday 24 October at Bagan

Quite a large portion of the Platoon had booked for a dawn balloon ride above Bagan. It has become so popular that there are now too many balloons and the government is threatening to shut it down. It will probably take an accident to make that happen. Luckily, we didn’t partake. The brave balloonists assembled at 5 am in pelting rain, were taken by a clapped out bus to the flight field and promptly brought back again. They each paid the balloon company $330 in cash to go aloft and are now trying to get their money back.

Still in the rain, we visited Bagan’s biggest market – or was it a fly farm? Chicken, fish and meat were all in the open on the ground. The vegetables go black very quickly. Added to the soggy occasion was the fact that the market was half closed. In any case, we’d already visited a similar ‘locals’ market in Ava Inwa and seen the produce, including heaped buckets of rich green cow manure sold by the kilo and sitting between the carrots and cauliflower.

With the weather clearing up the platoon became cheerful, especially because the Kommendant had been temporarily replaced by a local tourist girl with better English and a plethora of interesting facts. However, as she stood up at the end of the bus using an old PA system, her words came out very distorted. For instance, she was talking to us about peanuts, but what we got was ‘there are three sizes of penis in Myanmar. Penis oil is good for cooking’. She also told us that Buddha had 40 teeth as opposed to her own excellent set of 32. While at a beautiful temple she pointed to the trees in the overgrown garden where there were several tear-drop shaped nets hanging from the branches. These had been made by male tailor birds. Once the boys have finished their work, the females decide which nest they like the most and its builder is rewarded with copulation, eggs and family life. Their forbears must have been students of human behaviour.

She hosted us through several temples, all old, falling apart and beautiful. Bagan is in an earthquake-prone region and many of the pagodas, temples and stupas have been destroyed or damaged by severe tremors. In the gardens where the tailor birds build their nests two of the stupas are tipping over because of shifting foundations. The locals have capitalised on this by putting up a sign claiming an affinity with the leaning tower of Pizza. I suggested to Robert, a Queensland solicitor travelling with us, that he could represent Italy in an action for misrepresentation against Myanmar. “We’d have a good case,” he said, “but who would I send the bill to?” Robert and I had not played chess for 30 years but we organised a challenge during one of the rainy afternoons. I was going well until I didn’t notice that he had a bishop sitting on my queen and while I was busy saving a pawn her majesty was marched off the board to a dungeon. Consequently, he won, but not until I’d given him a fright by nearly trapping his king with a knight and rook combination.

The platoon is made up of universally nice people. They are mostly retired, overweight, unfit and friendly. Vern, for instance, is a long retired aircraft refueller from the NSW Central Coast. He has a megaphone voice that you can identify in the crowd. He seems to attract vendors, and I often hear him sounding off: “No I don’t want it! The price has nothing to do with it. I just don’t want it! I don’t like it! I can’t tell you why I don’t like it and even if I did I wouldn’t pay the price you’re asking. No, I don’t want it at a cheaper price. Look, go away. I don’t want it for Chrissake!”

What I can’t fathom is how these people manage to pay for cruising. This is our first cruise (I’m not breaking my neck to go on another one) but most of the platoon members are cruise junkies. They sit down and compare cruise companies, destinations they’ve been to and where they’re going next. The retiree cruising market is huge and will only get bigger. Yet, with few exceptions, they are not wealthy crowd. In Don’s case, he does collection rounds of his kids, telling them, no doubt, that the next trip will probably be his last. Others are spending their super before their kids can get their hands on it.