It was from Putao, of northern Myanmar, in the 1920’s, that Frank Kingdon Ward wrote that, and I paraphrase, plant collecting is a congregation of seemingly endless, dull, frustrating moments interspersed with seconds that make the process worth the anguish and boredom. After months of planning, apprehension, reconsideration, excitement, and imagination, I am here, now, this moment, in that very settlement. Across the street from our guest house are the chants of Buddhists or Christians in service; I cannot tell the difference, though the preponderance of the Lisu minority in the area would suggest the latter. To the east, a gibbous moon rises blessed by a cadence of crickets and frogs. I cannot bring myself to believe that Frank Kingdon Ward’s times here differed significantly, except for the fact that he had servants and I have electricity (sometimes).
Upon our arrival this afternooon, I had been sufficiently naïve to ask if there existed internet service, which may have seriously vitiated my reputation amongst those I would spend nearly three weeks with in the mountains beyond Putao to the NW. There does not even exist mobile service while the hours of electricity are between 5 am until 1 pm, and then again, generally, between 6 pm and 10 pm.
First, the flight north. Not particularly being a devote’ of small planes, believing our flight was a mere 1.5 hours seemed perfectly reasonable. After three stops, and enough elapsed time to cross the continental USA and half the distance to Iceland, and with no air conditioning, a mid-air explosion of the aircraft began to seem a fully acceptable albeit abbreviated end to our first day of adventure. Though, to be fair, Air Bagan operated a safe flight, and the staff and passengers all held a ready smile that warmed and welcomed the only tourists on the plane.
Absent from his seat on this plane and sadly so was my friend and compatriot, Scott McMahan, of Atlanta, GA, who had aided considerably in organizing this trip. Last minute alerts from the US Embassy in Yangon during the 12th hour as we left Hanoi, had him reconsider his participation; with two darling young girls at home, already missing their Dad, it seemed the prudent and responsible decision to make under the circumstances.
Personally, I hate bombs and possess an absolute loathing to being held hostage. However I had under my belt a similar and unsettling situation in 2003 during my last trek in E. Nepal. I possessed the confidence that this conflict was not about being an American in Myanmar, but more about about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I have just turned 60 years old and do not have young children. I can now be rightly at the wrong places or wrongly at the right places and feel as if my pursuits have already rewarded plentifully and generously. In the end, and to be perfectly honest, our security was never given a moment’s thought during our entire time in the north.
So, here it is, the Putao that I had so often read of in the accounts of Frank Kingdon Ward, who, in the early years of the 20th century, had spent many summers waiting for the monsoon to diminish and his collection work to continue Certainly, it might have changed a wee bit since the colonial times when the British ruled and the area was commanded by a fortified redoubt known as Fort Hertz. But if it had, it had not much.
Our guide, Win Aung, who insisted on being called Wayne, met us at our airport and there was an immediate confidence in his abilities, his sense of humor and his English. He took us for an early supper at the only joint in town (where we gratifyingly realized how well dogs and cats are treated in this country) and made final arrangements for our departure the following morning directly after breakfast. Before we retired, he took us to a Buddhist temple decked in lights and candles; the evening of the gibbous moon of October being the ceremonial day of Kathina, one of the holiest in the faith. We were treated to bowls of traditional rice noodles by the benefactress of the temple before returning to our lodging, quite ready for a good sleep and an early start.