MYANMAR: A JOURNEY
Yangon, 7 March, 2015
We slipped our moorings at half past three in the afternoon, two hours late – the flight from Yangon to Sittwe had left very late. As we drove from the airport to the jetty, our guide told us apologetically that the tide was running out now. This, coupled with the strong current down the Kaladan River, meant we were facing a seven-hour journey up to Mrauk U – if the boat’s engine didn’t break down on the way. Accepting the inevitable, we settled down on the boat’s small focsle, as far away as possible from the engine, which was knocking hard and strong, while the boat chugged its way down the busy creek. It was a beautiful afternoon, cloudless, slightly hazy, not too hot; it was going to be a good ride.
We exited the creek into the mouth of the river, so big that at first we thought we had entered the sea. Surprised, we looked around us as the boat turned northward and started following the shore closely, skirting small fishing boats and their nets. Out to sea, some islets, or maybe headlands, lay humped on the horizon, while to our left extended a grassy plain
on which stood a few small lean-to’s for the fishermen and some fishing boats, sitting upright, waiting to be dragged down to the shore.
We waited for something more riverlike to appear. And gradually, without us noticing it, a low bank crept up on our right, far away in the distance. And so we realized that we had finally entered the Kaladan River. But such a wide river! The far bank kept following us, but always at a respectful distance.
The boat continued crawling up the shore, no doubt to keep out of the strong currents. A flock of birds, sand martins perhaps, dived and swooped close to the water’s surface, flashing from brown to white and back to brown as they rolled and wheeled in tight formation, before settling on the mud of the river bank. Another flock of birds flapped quietly over us in formation, homing in on some faraway destination.
Now and then, a boat would pass us or we would pass one
otherwise we had the river in all its wideness to ourselves. The same flat deserted plain kept us company to our left, but by now the grass had narrowed to a strip of emerald green along the shoreline, backed by a vast expanse of dry paddy fields, dotted with rice-hay ricks.
The flatness was broken now and again by a tall tree standing guard over the landscape.
For a brief moment – but only a very brief moment – I imagined ourselves to be chugging along some river in the Netherlands, scanning the flat Dutch farmland. But then a range of small hills hove into sight, with two of them topped by gold-covered stupas and the image of Holland faded.
As we approached, the sun began to set, slowly at first and then ever quicker, reddening the stupas’ gold to copper.
At last, the sun sank below the horizon, leaving us in the moon’s company. She had been waiting quietly for her moment. She was waxing crescent, having reached her dark point a week before. Although only a small sliver was shining down on us, we could make out the ghostly outline of the rest of her lying in that sliver, “the new moone wi’ the auld moone in her arme” as the Scottish ballad puts it.
We sat there, enjoying her company, but she was already a spent force when she became visible to us. She stayed with us for just an hour before she too sank below the horizon.
Venus, the star of the evening, had been keeping the moon company, along with some of the brighter stars, but now, with the extinction of the last bright light in the sky, the full panoply of stars was able to appear in all its glory. Such a spectacle! The sky’s dome was studded with stars, some bright, some dim, some big, some small, some quarters of the sky were dense with stars, others were pools of darkness. And arcing across the sky from end to end was the Milky Way
created by the drops of milk, so the Ancient Greeks averred, that sprayed from the breast of the Goddess Hera when she snatched it away from baby Hercules’s mouth, who was suckling her while she slept, put there surreptitiously by Zeus.
We sat entranced. How rarely we see the stars now! The strong lights of our modern life block out all but the brightest stars. Neither my wife nor I know our constellations at all well, but we could make out the three stars in Orion’s Belt
part of a much larger set of stars denoting Orion fighting the heavenly bull in the constellation Taurus
As we pointed and guessed, the Milky Way wheeled this way and that above our heads: the boat was turning strongly now as the river began to meander.
As the river meandered, so did our talk. We talked about the Big Bang, which scientists say occurred some 14 billion years ago. They tell us a fascinating story about what happened afterwards. After a mere microsecond, the first protons and neutrons were being formed. A few minutes later, they began to coalesce into nuclei. Four hundred thousand years later, these combined with electrons to create the first hydrogen atoms. But it was only 150 million years later that the first stars began to form. And it was only 10 billion years later that the process of life creation began on this Earth, eventually leading to my wife and I sitting on the focsle of this boat, gazing at these stars. Scientists tell us that these stars are still rushing away from each other as the Universe continues to expand. What will happen next? Will we see the Big Crunch, where the Universe’s expansion will finally come juddering to a halt and then everything will hurtle back together again? It seems not; current observations suggest that the Universe’s expansion will continue or even accelerate. So will we see the Big Rip, where the Universe expands faster and faster, finally ripping galaxies, stars, and even atoms apart? Or will we see the Big Freeze, where expansion continues more moderately but existing stars burn out, no new ones are created, and the Universe goes dark and very cold? Or something else?
Nearer at home, we talked of our star, the sun. Scientists have a story for its future too. Over the next five billion years or so, they tell us, after it has burned all its hydrogen, our sun will grow into a Red Giant, making the Earth so hot in the process as to become uninhabitable. Then it will suffer a helium flash and collapse inward on itself. After it has stabilized, it will start to consume its helium for several billion years more before starting to expand again. But this time, the expansion will be unstable. At some point, it will shed its outer envelope as a planetary nebula while the core will collapse brutally to become a White Dwarf. It will survive as a White Dwarf for several trillion years before becoming a Black Dwarf. And so, sitting on that little focsle, with our backs against the cabin wall and our eyes on the sky, we followed in the footsteps of our distant ancestors, who for hundreds of thousands of years had gazed up at the stars and weaved beautiful stories to explain them.
Back on Earth, at river level, all was now inky black. No light shone from the shore. From time to time, we would see blinking red lights from fishing boats working the night shift. Once, a strong torch sprang to life ahead of us sweeping the waters, and suddenly a sea-going fishing boat loomed out of the darkness beside us. I dozed on and off, while my wife kept a look-out on the focsle, staring at the stars. At last, a faint glare of light ahead signaled Mrauk U. The wide, wide river had narrowed to a creek, trees were reaching out to us from either bank. The captain throttled the motor and the boat nosed into the jetty, where we could make out the car waiting to take us to our hotel.
Tintoretto’s Milky Way: http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/image/milkyway.JPG (in http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/milkyway.htm)
all other photos: ours