“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published July 6, 2008, in the Boston Globe)
Wow! This was a mighty impressive and fascinating bicycle trip. I wish I had been there!
WHO: Michael Romanow, 53, and Gary Kelly, 53, both of Westwood, Mass.; Trond Skramstad, 47, of Newton, Mass.; and Curt Allen, 51, of Marlow, N.H.
WHERE: Burma (also called Myanmar).
WHEN: Two weeks in February.
WHY: “I wanted to see Burma before it opened up to the world,” Romanow said. “I did a bike ride to Vietnam with VeloAsia 12 years ago and knew they went to Burma. So I started e-mailing friends about going.”
WELCOME WAGON: “I was ambivalent, wondering if it made sense to support a regime that has a horrible reputation,” Kelly said, referring to the country’s military dictatorship. “But I was so glad I went. We all were. We had a great time and it didn’t feel oppressive in the way I thought it would be. The Burmese were so thrilled to see us there. Everywhere we rode, everybody would come out and yell `mingalaba,’ which means hello, and slap high-fives.”
TOUR FOR FOUR: Although the men were on an existing tour, they were the only travelers, and had two assistants and a Burmese guide, Melvin. “Melvin really loved his country and knew a huge amount about the central part, where we were, and was a great resource about Buddhism. He rode with us a few times, but mostly he drove,” Kelly said. The foursome brought their own hybrid bikes, and shared the mostly paved but rough roadways with ox carts, tractors, pedestrians carrying goods on yokes on their shoulders, mopeds, and buses.
CULTURAL HARMONY: At Inle Lake they saw floating gardens and fishing villages on stilts. “There was silk weaving, silver making, and rolling cheroots, like cigarettes,” Romanow said. “The work was all labor intensive.” They took a balloon ride over Bagan, dotted with thousands of pagodas. “Bagan was probably the biggest tourist area, with mostly Australians and Europeans,” Kelly said. In and near Mandalay, they watched locals promenade the almost mile-long teak U Bein Bridge and saw hundreds of red-robed monks line up for lunch at the famed Mahagandayon monastery. “The Buddhist presence was just amazing,” Romanow said.
NICELY SPICY: Accommodations ranged from resorts to “a couple funky old places that looked like they should have been in the Alps,” Romanow said. They usually had a Western breakfast, “but for lunch and dinner Melvin would take us to local restaurants. Rice was always the staple and then we’d have all these side dishes, vegetables and meat, with several different condiments. It was really spicy and really good.”
SINCE THE CYCLONE: The news of the cyclone in May brought the men an “overwhelming sadness,” Romanow said. They were able to contact Melvin and donate aid money through a friend of his in Thailand. “His home wasn’t affected, but he was trying to help other families.”