Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Interview in brief: Al Stoller, Fort Wayne’s thrill-seeking wing-walker

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Al Stoller Patrick Downs

For as long as he can remember, Al Stoller has been a thrill seeker. Growing up in Paulding County, Ohio, he was a member of the high school rocket club. After graduating from college and moving to Fort Wayne, he got into drag-racing cars – “legal and illegal” – before taking up skydiving, a pursuit that lasted until he broke his ankle. Next came aerobatic flying, and in 2013 Stoller attended an academy in Seattle, Washington, to learn how to wing-walk. Since then he’s been up more than 15 times, including performances at air shows. Last year, at age 71, he was featured in a Japanese documentary about seniors with unusual hobbies.

How would you describe the sensation of wing-walking?

The academy [in Seattle] teaches you all the specifics – the three points of contact, the propeller blast, where you can put your feet so you don’t step through the fabric wing. When you first climb out of the cockpit, you’re so overwhelmed, four of your five senses are on total overload. You’ve got adrenaline flowing through your body like you wouldn’t believe. It’s really, really hard to think because you’ve got so much going on that’s never happened before in your life. So you’ve got to develop muscle memory so you don’t even have to think about where to put your hands or where to grab onto.

What happens once you’re up in the air?

You climb up to 3,000 feet. It’s an open-cockpit biplane with a 450-horsepower rotary engine. I’m in the front cockpit; the pilot always flies in the back. You climb onto the top wing, and you’ve got to maneuver your way through some wires and then strap a belt on because there’s nothing to hold onto. You’re just standing there. Then you do loops and rolls. Then the pilot levels out. You get back down in the cockpit, and then climb out between the two wings and do the same aerobatics over again. I’ve got the point where I just stand up and the air pressure, the wind, holds me against the two cables. That way I can give thumbs up and wave to the crowd. The whole flight takes about 30 minutes, and the actual wing-walking is about 15 or 20 minutes.

Do you ever feel scared when you’re up there?

Your senses and instincts tell you to be afraid, but the thrill seeker inside of you says, “Nah, go for it.” I would say 75 percent of the people that do go up, if they hadn’t committed so much money and time, they would never climb out of the cockpit. The 25 percent of the thrill seekers just can’t wait to do it, but their senses still tell them, “You shouldn’t be doing this, you should be afraid,” but you just throw that aside and go for it.

Photo: Patrick Downs

 

 

 

 

 

Written by latefornowhere

August 9, 2018 at 1:15 pm

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Burmese refugees build community in Fort Wayne

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Buddhist Temple 1

Listen to the personal histories of refugees and asylum seekers from Burma who have settled in Fort Wayne, and you will hear a litany of travails unimaginable to most Americans: Teenagers thrown in jail for expressing admiration for democratic principles; ethnic and religious minorities whose hometowns were obliterated by their own country’s army; adults who have spent most of their lives in refugee camps and, as a result, retain few first-hand memories of their native land or culture.

Among them is Ven Kuthala, who arrived in the United States in 2002 on a religious visa and later attained asylum status. He now serves as senior monk at the Burmese Buddhist Temple on Tillman Road in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

As a college student in Burma’s main city of Yangon, Ven Kuthala was arrested in 1988 for participating in demonstrations aimed at transforming the country’s brutal dictatorship into a democracy. While an estimated 3,000 activists were gunned down in the streets by the army, Ven Kuthala described himself as “very lucky” to serve only 18 days in jail. Upon his release he rejoined the protests, but with the government crackdown intensifying, he was soon forced to flee to neighboring Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk.

“I was not a legal migrant in Thailand, so I had to move from temple to temple every three or four months,” he said. “I didn’t want to spend my life like that, so I got a religious visa to settle in the United States and later applied for asylum.”

Ven Kuthala became a resident at the Burmese Buddhist Temple, taking over leadership in 2005 after the previous senior monk moved to California. In addition to his religious duties, much of his time is now dedicated to helping refugees from Burma adjust to life in Fort Wayne.

“Most refugees are displaced persons,” he said. “From 1988, the military junta launched military offensives along the border. Some villages completely disappeared, and the people moved into refugee camps in Thailand. Some lived in the camps for 10, 15, 20 years.”

He said that once refugees arrive in the United States, their main challenge is overcoming the language barrier. But they also need to find jobs quickly and deal with other aspects of daily life that most Americans take for granted. 

“I help people with everything they need: applying for social security cards, doing their taxes,” Ven Kuthala said. “Other things are social: family matters, enrolling kids in school. They need advice. Some people tell me about phone calls requesting money or saying they are from the IRS. I explain that these are called scammers.” 

Many refugees who live in Fort Wayne – from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union – arrive under a resettlement program run by the Catholic Charities Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, funded by federal grants under a cooperative agreement with the State Department.

According to Catholic Charities, about 200,000 Burmese refugees have resettled in the United States since 1990, with Fort Wayne hosting some 6,000 of those. While many early refugees fled political persecution, more recent arrivals have included Muslims and Christians escaping persecution in the Buddhist-majority Burma.

The program’s resettlement director, Nyein Chan, is himself a political refugee from Burma who was involved in the 1988 uprising against the military dictatorship. He arrived in the U.S. in 1994 and began working with Catholic Charities in 2000.

“The first barrier we experience is the language barrier,” he said. “Some people can pick up some level of English from the refugee camps, especially younger refugees. But some refugees are illiterate even in their own language, so it takes lots of time to learn.”

Nyein Chan said that the second biggest challenge is cultural integration, a process that also takes time and does not always proceed smoothly.

Last October, Fort Wayne City Councilmen Glynn Hines (6th District) hosted a community forum on Burmese resettlement. Several people aired complaints at the meeting about the behavior of some of their Burmese neighbors, including cooking outside, littering, neglecting their lawns, and painting their houses “circus colors.”

“Some people see this behavior among refugees and think, ‘Oh, it’s Burmese culture,’” Nyein Chan said. “But the reality is that refugee camp culture is divorced from the Burmese culture. Even though they’re called Burmese refugees, they don’t even know what Burma looks like. We don’t experience orange houses in Burma, believe me. This is a culture where they grow up in very crowded refugee camps – 45,000 people in a very small space. Sometimes it takes time to let go of that lifestyle.”

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In the face of these challenges, Catholic Charities does its best with 11 staff members to facilitate rapid integration, including arranging housing, helping with job placement, and offering an initial five-day cultural orientation program about the basics of life in the U.S., such as law enforcement and how devices like fire alarms and thermostats work. The program continues for 90 days, with a mid-term orientation within 45 days of their arrival.

“We ask how they feel after two months in the United States. They say they love very much living here, but refugees always compare it with how they recently lived,” Nyein Chan said. “One thing they’re not happy with is the food. Even if they get food from the Asian grocery store, they say it tastes different. And when people arrive in wintertime, the weather is very challenging. Other than that, they always say, ‘Thank you so much. We are very happy.’ After three months, they even look different: complexion glowing, they put on a little bit of weight.”

After orientation, Catholic Charities refers the new arrivals to its job development program, where they spend six weeks learning how to dress for an interview, the importance of eye contact, the American work ethic, and workplace behavior. Employment services are offered up to five years from their arrival date. The Fort Wayne program boasts a highly successful job placement rate, with more than 89 percent employed within four to six months of their arrival.   

Other services offered by Catholic Charities include medical transportation, language interpretation, and after-school programs for the children who need help with their homework.

The City of Fort Wayne also does its part to welcome refugees to the area. Palermo Galindo, the community liaison with the mayor’s office, works citywide to help immigrants understand processes like applying for building permits, starting businesses, or finding information about jobs. He also fosters good relationships with all immigrant communities.

“I always ask people who call with specific complaints [about immigrants], ‘Have you talked to your neighbor about what’s going on with the trash or with the lawn?’ And they say, ‘No, I haven’t,’” Mr. Galindo said. “I think that’s the first step. If they say, ‘I don’t know if they’ll understand’ – well, you’ve got to try it first. A very small percentage of people are maybe not following the rules or the city ordnance. Just like any group.”

He stressed that immigrant communities also play a key role in facilitating the acculturation process.

“We started good relationships with [immigrant communities]. Now a lot of people know me. That relationship has to continue to grow and provide opportunities to establish a dialogue within the community. I see that as a win-win for everyone,” he said. “If they become isolated as a community, there are so many things happening with the city that they might not know about, and that could affect them not growing with the same pace as the city.”

He added that from his own experience as an immigrant from Mexico, he has seen first-hand the benefits of living in a city that is open and welcoming to newcomers. “I do my very best to represent the city to the community, and pay that as a way to show how thankful I am that I have been provided with an opportunity,” he said.

Despite the challenges of language and acculturation, the dedication of people like Mr. Galindo, Nyein Chan, and Ven Kuthala has helped many refugees not only settle but also prosper in Fort Wayne.  

Javier Mondragon, pastor of Many Nations Church and head of the Bridge of Grace nonprofit organization, said he has had only good experiences working with the Burmese community, and has seen many success stories.

“I’ve seen Burmese families buying properties that were vacant or blighted in the community, and they fixed them. And so that’s good for the community,” he said, adding that while some grievances he has received about immigrants are related to city code enforcement, other complaints, like house color, are less consequential. “A color, being different, doesn’t mean that it’s bad. We try to tell them, ‘Have you talked to them?’ I think the first step is just going to them and talk as friends and neighbors.”

Ye Win Latt from the Burmese Muslim Education and Community Center said he has also seen increasing numbers of Burmese buying houses, which is “a positive contribution to the locals and the homeowners as well.”

“Most of the Burmese spend their time in refugee camps, and this is the first time they are living free and becoming homeowners. Of course that’s not an excuse to be not complying with all the codes and regulations in place, but at the same time we are part of the community, and if there is any issue, we like to be part of the solution too,” he said.

Nyein Chan said Catholic Charities and other organizations do as much as they can with limited resources, but successful integration into American society requires effort from everyone.   

“Sometimes you have a big heart for helping people, but without additional resources you can’t go very far,” he said. “When we’re talking about integration, it concerns people who live here and people who come in. If we are going to put aside the title of ‘refugee’ in an immigrant country like the United States, it concerns people who arrived a long time ago, those coming recently, and those who are still coming. We have to learn from each other.”

 

Written by latefornowhere

July 10, 2018 at 12:16 pm

A grueling start to the cycling season

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On Sunday, April 15, I participated in my first organized cycling event of 2018: the Rollfast 8×8 Challenge in Brown County State Park in southern Indiana. Getting to the start line required a 2:30am wake-up call and a three-hour drive from Fort Wayne through darkness and rain. Dawn broke as I entered the park, and the rain continued falling while I prepped my bike and pulled on multiple layers of clothing: cycling cap under my helmet; thin base layer, long-sleeved jersey, short-sleeved jersey and rain jacket on my torso; tights over cycling shorts covering the legs; wool socks and shoe covers protecting my feet; and long-fingered gloves on my hands.

At the start line, it was apparent that the inclement weather had kept more than half of the 100 pre-registrants home for the day: I counted fewer than 40 cyclists shivering along with me in the cold rain as the ride announcements were made by the organizer, who remained sheltered in a tent while he issued warnings about the dangerous descents along the 11.7-mile loop. He then put down the microphone, stepped out of the tent and proclaimed the commencement of our 8-lap, 94-mile odyssey.

Lap 1: My grand plan to start the ride super-easy was tossed out the window by the need to warm my body. The climbing started immediately, and I shifted into my lowest gear (34×28) and kept a high cadence to the top of the first step of the climb. A group of four or five riders blazed up the hill, and someone near me said, “There they go already.” I reached the top with the second group, and stayed with them during the next, shallower step of the climb, but dropped back on the third, steeper section. I rode alone across the plateau with one cyclist within reach ahead of me, but no desire on my part to put the hammer down and get onto his wheel. I kept it steady through the rollers, then took it easy the first time down the descent: sweeping right, very sharp left, a couple of ups and downs, then a steep drop into a valley with two narrow gravel patches spanning the road at the bottom. I was starting to warm up, except for my arms, which were covered by only a thin jersey and rain jacket. After a mile or so of flat terrain, I hit the second climb, consisting of a steep section, a triple set of short but steep bumps, and then a very steep section to the top. I tried to balance standing and sitting to keep my legs fresh. At this point I was caught by three riders from behind, and rode with them down the fast, fun, brake-free decline to the start/finish line. Lap time: 41:5

Lap 2: Rain continued falling. This was the only lap that I rode most of the way with other cyclists. After that, I was on my own to the finish. I tried settling into a manageable rhythm on the climbs, and my 28 cog still seemed adequate. I sat behind the other three riders across the plateau, drafting off to one side to avoid the rooster-tail of grime flying off the tire in front of me, and then took the lead on the rollers leading to the descent. I kept my momentum and my cadence high on the small upgrades, then flew down the hill faster than on the first lap. We were still together on the second climb and descent, and crossed the finish line as a small, if loosely allied, group. Lap time: 41:50

Lap 3: More rain. One of the riders in our group dropped back a bit on the climb, and the other two stopped at a car at the top of the first section, leaving me on my own. Still pedaling, I pulled off my gloves to grab my second Gu packet out my back pocket but dropped it onto the road. As I circled back to pick it up, the two guys who had stopped at the car rode by – one asked if I was okay – and I never saw them again. I picked up my gel and ate it on the move before I hit the next uphill section, then settled back into my rhythm. I think it was also at this point that I really started thinking about what I had gotten myself into, wondering whether I could make it up the hills five more times. The lap-by-lap countdown began. Lap time: 45:3

Lap 4: A bit of respite from precipitation, but the roads were still wet and wormy, and the sky remained threatening. Another climb, another gel, another descent, another climb. Already, fatigue was starting to creep into my legs as I began struggling with the 28 on the steeper grades, but I was happy to reach the halfway milestone at the end of the lap. I made my first stop at the aid station to top-up my water bottles and eat a few fig bars. The people manning the station did all the work of refilling and handing out food, but one guy questioned my decision to carry two bottles, which of course added weight to the bike. Lap time: 50:41

Lap 5: And then came the storm. The rain returned with a vengeance, falling harder than before and accompanied by high, gusty winds that made even the flat sections of the course difficult to ride. The brim of my cycling cap helped keep the lashing rain out of my eyes, except on the descents where the cold drops stung any exposed skin. It was also around this point that, due to numbness in my fingers, I had to reach across my handlebars with my right hand whenever I wanted to shift my front derailleur into the big chainring. I skipped the aid station in favor of another gel; at one point on this lap or the next, I inadvertently dropped an empty gel packet onto the ground while trying to put it into my back pocket. Not wanting to be an ungrateful guest in the park, I circled back around to pick my litter off the ground before continuing on. Lap time: 49:30.

Lap 6: Wind and rain continued, and it was around this time that I really started suffering on the steepest climbs. I remained standing until my legs started burning, then sat down and churned my way to the top, sometimes at a cadence in the low 40s. Once I sat down, there was no standing up again. This was when that lazy, pesky demon in my head who prefers comfy sofas and Doritos started asking whether it was really worth finishing, but deep down I never doubted my ability to ride 8 laps. I also figured that I would finish in about 6 hours, which was the same amount of time I would spend driving to and from the race. I wanted to make the trip worthwhile, along with earning the burger and fries I planned to eat on the way home. I made my second aid station stop at the end of the lap, grabbing a banana and a bottle of energy drink. Lap time: 53:07

Lap 7: The most difficult and slowest lap of the ride, even though the rain finally stopped and the sun started shining through the clouds. As I had during the early laps, I made an effort to admire the scenery of the park as I passed a few of the vista points, turning my head to catch glimpses of the clouds breaking over the hills. But the pretty views didn’t do much to help me negotiate the climbs, the steepest of which I tackled by tacking back and forth across the road to reduce the gradient. Even so, I suffered cramps in the muscles behind both of my knees, but I managed to keep pedaling and worked them out during the descent to the start/finish line, where I made my last aid station stop for a few fig bars before heading out on the last lap. Lap time: 55:32

Lap 8: With (very slightly) renewed energy, and with my clothes drying out and my body warming in the intermittent sun, I ticked off each climb as I topped it for last time. I took it easy on the flats and on the descents (the idea of a blowout on my front tire, which I had recently swapped from the rear wheel after having used it for weeks on the indoor trainer, had been haunting me since around Lap 6), trying to save everything for the last climb, which loomed dark and unavoidable on the horizon. I feared the return of my leg cramps, but they remained at bay during the lesser climbs. I made the last of the day’s four or five toilet stops at the outhouse at the base of the final climb, then braced myself and started up, tacking across the road as I had the lap before. No one passed me on the way up, as a few had on previous laps, spinning by on their 32s or 34s while I struggled in my 28. Up I went the first section half-standing and half-seated, then standing up the triple slopes of the second section, then standing as long as I could up the last steep obstacle until I had to sit and churn my way ever closer to the top. Just when I thought I was safe, the lurking cramps suddenly struck again, but by that point I only needed five more pedal strokes to reach the crest. Despite the pain, I forced my legs over until I was able to coast across the top. I stood and stretched my protesting muscles, and then I was free to enjoy the descent on roads that were drying out after a day of relentless rain, finally crossing the line as one of only 15 riders to complete all 8 laps. Lap time: 52:48. Overall time: 6:23:47. Overall placing: 10th of 35 (5th in the 50-54 age group).         

 

Written by latefornowhere

May 31, 2018 at 11:47 am

Fear of the elements

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Spring is officially here, and as of this writing, I’ve spent about 70 hours on my bicycle since the beginning of the year – all but six of those in the comfort of the Great Indoors. There have been a couple of days when temperatures in the 50s have drawn me out onto the roads of northeastern Indiana, but for the most part I’ve felt no compulsion to get dressed in cold-weather gear and unhook the bike from the trainer.

Although I grew up in central Pennsylvania, it’s been 25 years since I’ve lived in a cold climate. Most of my winter-weather riding of years gone by was done during the era of helmetless pros, down-tube shifters and LeMond-Fignon rivalries. But now, after a decade in Southern California, followed by 15 years in Southeast Asia, anything below 55 Fahrenheit feels downright Arctic to me.

Another deterrent to outdoor riding has been the unsullied cleanliness of my recently purchased Specialized Tarmac: I want the bike’s open-air voyages to be thoroughly enjoyable rather than clouded by thoughts of spending 45 minutes removing salt and grit from the sparkling-new drivetrain after the ride. It’s inevitable that the Tarmac (and I) will be exposed to elements other than sunshine, but not just yet …

In the meantime, I’m riding four or five days a week on the indoor trainer, pedaling furiously for 90 to 120 minutes at a time without actually going anywhere.

One or two days a week, I use the Zwift cycling app, which does a fine job of deluding me into believing that I’m actually progressing along smooth, idyllic roads free from motorized traffic but clogged with fellow athletes from around the world. There’s plenty of incentive to ride hard – from speed, distance and wattage displays; to constant admonishments to “close the gap” on the rider just in front of me; to real-time comparisons between my fastest times up the hills and my current leg-burning effort to make it to the top, even as the resistance on my smart trainer ramps up in accordance with the steepness of the grade.

The rest of the time, though, I ride old-school, pedaling on my indoor trainer while staring at my Garmin and listening to music on my headphones. I do this when I want complete, distraction-free control of my ride, without Zwift’s built-in inducements to ride at a higher intensity than planned. (I readily admit to being mentally weak in this regard – my competitive spirit makes it difficult to temper my efforts.) Three days of Zwift in a given week, and by Sunday I’m suffering the effects of severe fatigue. But intersperse a couple of Zwift rides with two or three careful, heart-rate-controlled sessions on the good ol’ analogue trainer, and by the end of the week I feel like I’ve struck a good balance between hard efforts, base aerobic endurance and recovery.

This schedule seems to be working for now, and switching between Zwift and more archaic indoor training methods helps keep everything from growing stale. For the time being, I’m still mostly dedicated to riding inside, but I have my eye on the weather forecast, waiting for the perfect confluence of sunshine, warm temperatures and free time to get out on the open road.

Written by latefornowhere

March 23, 2018 at 1:39 pm

Posted in Cycling, Uncategorized

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Getting fit and fitted for a new cycling season

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It’s been quite a while since I last owned a high-end road bike. Not that I haven’t been riding – I logged more than 4,200 miles in 2017, mostly on my sturdy old Trek 4700 hardtail mountain bike equipped with 1.5-inch city tires – but with thoughts of American-style road racing running through my head for the first time in two decades, I decided to kick off the New Year with the purchase of a Specialized Tarmac Elite.

The prospect of new cycling endeavors on a new bike also inspired me to take steps toward realizing the legendary “perfect” pedaling position, so I booked a session with bike-fit guru David Coar at Summit City Bicycles and Fitness in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The three-hour fitting process was divided into three parts, starting with a discussion that covered everything from my background as a cyclist (East Coast crits in the 80s; So Cal cross-country mountain bike races in the 90s; occasional gran fondos and casual tours ever since), my cycling goals (a bit of masters racing, interspersed with gran fondos and centuries), and issues with pain or discomfort on the bike (none).

Part two involved a meticulous body assessment from bottom to top, during which Maharishi Dave observed my (sometimes strained) efforts to perform particular movements and stretches. He also took numerous measurements of esoteric biological nooks and crannies like foot angulation and structure (high arch on right foot), spinal flexion and curve (neutral), shoulder rotation (full range), lower extremity alignment (neutral), and IT band tightness (mild).

 

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During the third part of the fitting, I mounted my Tarmac, which had been attached to an indoor trainer, and did some pedaling under the watchful eye of David, who stopped me occasionally to take more measurements and make incremental adjustments to my position.

 

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The primary revelation of the fit process was that my femurs are unusually long, which David said made me a good candidate for a custom frame (too late for that). It also explains why, at a modest 5 feet 9 inches tall, I have always found it extraordinarily difficult to sit comfortably in airplane seats without hitting my knees on the seat in front of me.

In any case, long femurs are meant to be an advantage in cycling due to the extra leverage they afford, and it’s a fortunate condition that I share with legendary pros like Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault. In fact, David guaranteed that once my bike position was perfected, I would make the podium of every race I entered or I would get a full refund on my fit.*

(*Not really.)

The other big surprise was that I had spent years cycling with my saddle too low – way, way too low. David raised it about 5 centimeters, which at first felt horribly elevated. Meanwhile, my elongated femurs meant that my saddle had to be moved back as far as possible to align my knees with the pedal spindles, and a slightly longer left femur necessitated adjusting the fore/aft position of my left cleat to compensate.

 

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My ischial tuberosity (sit bone) measurement was unusually narrow, so we swapped out the bike’s stock saddle for the narrowest one available in the shop, allowing me to sit back where I’m supposed to be instead of sliding forward in search of a more tenable position. Finally, we shortened the stem by 1 centimeter to offset the rearward adjustment of the saddle, and we lowered the handlebar a bit to facilitate a marginally more aero position.

The day after my fit, I took a test ride on Zwift. Although I suffered from a bit of tightness in the back of my legs just below the knees, I did feel like I was able to utilize my power for a greater portion of each pedal revolution; in fact, my estimated functional threshold power (FTP) went up by 8 watts despite holding back to avoid injuring muscles that were being used in new ways. 

My legs were sore the day after the test ride – not in a bad way, but rather like the feeling of going for a run after a few weeks off. The ache receded over the next three days, and I quickly became accustomed to the dizzying heights of my readjusted saddle. With my acclimatization period coming to an end, I’m looking forward to ramping up my training and seeing the extent to which my position allows me to take advantage of my physical peculiarities.  

Now all I have to do is shave my legs and ride 2,000 miles, and I might be ready to jump into a couple of Category 5 races by May.  

 

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Photos: Austin Brooks

Written by latefornowhere

February 15, 2018 at 3:07 pm

Cyclocross un-paves the way

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Most of the time, the grassy expanse of Bloomingdale Park just north of St. Mary’s River and west of Wells Street is a picture of tranquility. On Wednesday evenings from August to December, however, it becomes a gathering spot for some of Fort Wayne’s most daring and adrenaline-addicted cyclists.

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The 30 or so athletes – ranging in age from pre-teen to 50-something – congregate at 6 pm to pedal laps on a mile-long course that twists and turns across the lawn and through shady tree groves. The unpaved track seems designed for burly mountain bikes, but most participants favor lightweight bikes equipped with road-style dropped handlebars and knobby, all-terrain tires.

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The sport is called cyclocross, a type of off-road bicycle racing that originated in Europe at the turn of the 20th century but has only recently gained a foothold in the United States. According to the sport’s governing body, USA Cycling, cyclocross is now the fastest-growing cycling discipline in the country, with participation more than quadrupling in the past decade.

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Fort Wayne’s riverside training races, sponsored by Fort Wayne Outfitters and now in their tenth year, have easily kept pace with the nationwide explosion in popularity.

“It’s kind of neat to watch the sport grow from five people showing up 10 years ago to 30 people on a Wednesday night now,” said Chad Tieman, who helps organize the rides.

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Cyclocross courses are designed to test fitness and bike-handling skills, and might include anything from grass, mud and sand to sharp turns, steep hills and low barricades that force cyclists to dismount and carry their bikes for short distances. With the season running from late summer into winter, riders also face variable weather conditions, from 90 degrees and dry in August to 20 degrees and snowing in December.

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“Cyclocross is ever-changing,” said Tieman. “It’s not like a paved road where you ride in a straight line for hours. Cyclocross keeps you on your game and keeps your mind moving.”

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For serious cyclists, the Wednesday rides serve as preparation for the Ohio Valley Cyclocross Series, consisting of 10 race weekends in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and other cities in the region.

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“If you go to a race in Cincinnati, you’ll probably see 40 racers from Fort Wayne, and half of them finish on the podium in their category,” said Tieman. “I really credit these Wednesday nights. It really pushes you, riding with your friends.”

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With gutsy cyclists blazing through multiple laps on short courses that double back on themselves, cyclocross is more spectator-friendly than other cycling disciplines. Fans at weekend races are rambunctious, shouting, heckling, ringing cowbells and offering hand-ups of beer to racers.

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“One reason I like cyclocross is the guy in first place doesn’t always get a lot of applause,” said Tieman. “It’s the guy who’s in last, who’s trying his hardest, who gets the most cheering. I love that. It’s the coolest thing about the sport.”

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Dave McComb, who organizes separate Wednesday night training races at Franke Park under the auspices of 3 Rivers Velo Sport Cycling Club, said another attraction of cyclocross is the short, intense nature of the races compared with road or mountain bike events, which means less training for time-crunched adults.

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“When I had children, I got into cyclocross because it really fit the lifestyle of a masters [age 35-plus] racer with kids. You don’t have to ride your bike 12 hours a week to be good at a 45-minute race,” he said.

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While the Franke Park sessions are free, Fort Wayne Outfitters charges $10 to ride each week. The fee covers insurance, course maintenance, and post-ride food and drinks. It also includes a donation to Neighborlink, a nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers to provide free home repairs for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

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Neighborlink also sponsors a grassroots cyclocross team, organized by Andrew Hoffman, who said money raised last year through the sport was used to install six new furnaces and repair a dozen more in local homes.

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Hoffman said that although cyclocross might appear intimidating to the uninitiated, newcomers should not be afraid to show up on Wednesdays and give it a try.

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“You don’t have to have a cyclocross bike, and you don’t have to be hyper-competitive. Just bring your mountain bike and give it a shot,” he said. “The local cycling community is extremely welcoming to new people, regardless of your skill or how fast you are.”

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A slightly modified version of this story was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

Around Inle Lake in 18 days

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Leg-rowers rule Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival

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Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, located on the western end of Myanmar’s Inle Lake, is considered the holiest Buddhist site in southern Shan State. The ornate, two-story structure sits on the water like a sacred island, and each day, a steady stream of boats loaded with pilgrims arrives and departs from the dock near the stairs that lead up to the inner sanctum.

The focus of devotion at the pagoda is a group of five oddly shaped relics displayed on a pedestal in the middle of the main room. Upon close inspection, the objects look like roughly textured lumps of gold, one of them vaguely spherical, three of them taking the form of a pair of misshapen eggs – one sitting on top of the other – and the fifth like two stacked eggs with a small spire protruding from the top.

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Studying these objects, few who did not know the story behind them would guess that they were originally statues with human form, but that have lost their shapes as the result of many, many years of gold leaf application.

While the statues are, as a group, often referred to as Buddha images, some say that only three represent the Buddha while the other two are arahats, or disciples of the Buddha who have reached the highest level of spiritual achievement before entering nibbana. The statues are commonly believed to have been cast during the reign of Bagan King Alaungsithu (1112-1167 CE), and one can easily imagine that in another 900 years of gold leaf application, they will take on the appearance of perfectly spherical, golden bowling balls.

The pilgrims who flock to the pagoda often rub strips of red cloth against the figures. These bits of cloth are then tied to cars, trucks or motorcycles in the belief that the drivers and passengers will be protected from accidents and other forms of bad luck.

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The golden statues are also the focal point of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, which occurs from the first waxing day to the third waning day of the lunar month of Thadingyut – this year from September 21 to October 8.

The festival is the biggest event of the year at Inle Lake, a shallow body of water located at an altitude of 880 meters (2900 feet) above sea level and surrounded by low mountains. Home to numerous ethnic Intha and Shan villages – some of which lie along the shore, while others rise out of the water on wooden stilts – the lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar.

During the festival, four of the five statues are placed on a decorative barge shaped like a karaweik (mythical bird) and taken on an 18-day tour around the lake, stopping at each village for a night or longer so residents can pay homage.

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According to legend, the tour originally included all five statues, but one year a storm capsized the barge, dumping the relics into the lake. Divers recovered four of them but were unable to locate the fifth. Upon returning to the pagoda, however, pilgrims found the last statue mysteriously restored to its proper place on the pedestal, dripping wet and covered with algae from the lake. That image has remained there ever since, standing guard over the pagoda while the other four statues embark on the annual festival tour.

The slow-moving procession around the lake is one of the more spectacular annual rites in Myanmar. The karaweik barge is propelled from village to village by Inle Lake’s famous leg rowers, who stand on one leg while using the other to push their oar through the water. Dressed in traditional costumes, they row in unison to the beat of a huge drum.

The barge is escorted by dozens of boats, which are also steered by costumed leg rowers. Some ceremonial boats also carry dancers and martial artists who showcase their skills to the thousands of people who gather by the lakeshore to celebrate the event.

The scene at each village is a combination of devotion and carnival-like revelry, and visiting Inle Lake during the festival provides a great opportunity to see gatherings of different ethnic groups, including Shan, Intha, Danu, Palaung, Pa-O and Taung-Yo.

Devout Buddhists eagerly await the arrival of the procession in their villages, offering food and fresh flowers when it appears. Meanwhile, the villages take on the atmosphere of a country fair, with vendors selling food, drinks, toys, clothing and other consumer goods, and entertainers offering magic shows, marionette performances and dance dramas.

Among the highlights of the festival are the boat races, in which teams of leg rowers wearing traditional costumes compete against groups representing villages around the lake. The races normally occur on two specific dates during the festival period – this year on September 27 at Nyaung Shwe, and on October 8 at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda – and these are the best times for visitors to take part in the celebration in all its dynamic and colorful grandeur.

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Treasure Island: Geocaching by bicycle on Pulau Ubin

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During the week or so that the Pokemon Go craze lasted, people around the world could be observed shamelessly engaged in capturing virtual monsters that “existed” only insofar as players were willing to keep their eyes glued to their mobile phones.

While I have never played Pokemon Go, I have occasionally indulged in geocaching, which similarly involves relying on a phone app – or a GPS unit – to navigate real-world locations while on the hunt for a particular objective.

The key difference with geocaching is that the goal of the pursuit is not an imaginary creature but an actual object – usually a “cache” of small trinkets or a log book stashed inside a plastic container and hidden from the sight of casual passersby.

This tangible aspect means that geocaching, which has quietly persisted since its founding in 2000, is a more subtle pursuit than Pokemon Go: The actual existence of geocaches means that they are subject to thievery or disposal by anyone who discovers them accidentally. As a rule, therefore, these GPS treasure hunters seek to avoid being observed as they remove the containers from their hiding places.

So it was that on a recent trip to Singapore, I found myself milling about a picnic area on Pulau Ubin awaiting the departure of a large group of hikers who had decided to enjoy their lunches and tick a few boxes off their bird-watching lists a mere 5 meters from where, unbeknownst to them, one of these geocaches had been concealed.

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In an effort to loiter uncreepily in the vicinity, I feigned interest in the local flora, but I could only maintain my nonchalance for so long while staring at tree bark and sun-bleached leaves. The bird-watchers seemed to have hunkered down for the duration, and I eventually lost patience, remounted my rented mountain bike and pedaled away, silently vowing to return later in the day.

Pulau Ubin – an island that lies off Singapore’s northeast coast – is an undeveloped haven of traffic-free paved roads and dirt pathways that provides an easy, inexpensive escape from the commotion of the rest of the country. The forests and wetlands are best explored on foot or by bicycle, the latter of which can be rented on the island at prices ranging from S$5 to S$15 (US3.5 to US$10.5), depending on various factors such as how rusted they are and whether the gears and brakes actually work.

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Bumboats to Pulau Ubin can be caught at Changi Point Ferry Terminal. The 10-minute ride costs S$3 a person, with boats leaving as soon as there are 12 passengers. Once on the island, I splurged on a workable S$15 mountain bike and cruised inland for a day of exploration.

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Geocaches are each given a unique name once they’re placed and once their locations are uploaded onto the geocaching.com website, and I started by heading north to the far side of the island to find one called Orchid Garden. While a pedaled down a lonely, tree-shaded road, I occasionally glanced at the map on my phone to confirm that I was steadily closing the distance to my target.

Unfortunately, once I was within 0.1 miles of the cache, my Singapore SIM card conked out and I started receiving SMS’s from a telecoms operator in Malaysia – Pulau Ubin is close enough to the border, and remote enough from the center of Singapore, that my phone thought I had entered another country.

Unable to access the geocaching app, I continued on nonetheless, soon reaching an oceanfront campsite with mainland Malaysia visible across the briny strait. A hand-painted sign reading “Orchid Garden” pointed me to a dirt trail tunneling through the jungle.

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A few minutes later I arrived at the “garden”, where I found a modest shack, storage shed and boat dock on a property strewn with plant pots, ceramic sculptures, rusting motorcycles, torn fishing nets and other detritus. A makeshift “Cold Drinks Sold Here” sign promised the undeliverable as it pointed to a phantom business venture.

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Without the app to help me narrow the search, there were an infinite number of places where a small plastic box could be hidden among the clutter. After poking around for about 20 minutes I was no wiser about where it might be located. There were other caches to find, so I grabbed my bike and continued riding down the jungle trail, eventually spilling back onto pavement.

My Singapore SIM card soon returned from the dead, and I followed a network of winding roads to the western end of the island to find the Lady Gold cache hidden in Ketam Mountain Bike Park. Once inside the park, I followed the beginner-level “blue” trail to Pipit Hut, a rest area for hikers and cyclists.

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I had the shelter to myself, and my phone app indicated that the cache was hidden somewhere in the forest about 100 meters away. I plunged into the trees on foot but soon found my progress waylaid by a chain-link fence meant to keep people away from one of the long-abandoned quarries that in the 1960s had supplied Singapore’s construction industry and given Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) its name.

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Returning to the hut, I tried following a hiking trail in hopes that it would curve around and lead me in the right diction, but the longer I walked, the farther I moved from the cache. The sky darkened and the trees started swaying in a tempestuous wind, so I backtracked to the shelter and ate crackers while enjoying the spectacle of a brief, violent thunderstorm.

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The sun returned as the storm raged southwestward, but I remained flummoxed over the location of Lady Gold. Well, there were other caches to find, so I rode away empty-handed and followed the GPS signal to Recovery and Rest, where the aforementioned gaggle of lunch-eating, bird-watching miscreants stopped me dead in my nerdily frustrated geocaching tracks.

I was zero for three. Moving glumly onward, I aimed myself north in search of Not Too Deep, located in the forest along a nondescript stretch of pavement. I parked my bike as close to the cache as I could get on the road, and once again dove into the jungle. The trees were widely spaced, making for easy walking, but the ground was strewn with deep layers of huge leaves.

A GPS signal will normally bring searchers within 5 to 10 meters of the treasure, but actually finding it requires good, old-fashioned digging and snooping about. So many hiding places, so little time. Just as I was beginning to despair about my fourth failure, I kicked over a pile of leaves and there it was – a green ammunition can nestled among the roots at the base of a large banyan tree. I fell to my knees and howled lusty praise to the gods of geocaching. A group of cyclists who happened to be passing by on the road glanced nervously into the jungle and started pedaling faster.

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Flush with success, I took a break from the hunt and rode to the east side of the island to check out the Chek Jawa Wetlands, the flagship wildlife sanctuary on Pulau Ubin. A 1.1-kilometer boardwalk takes hikers through mangrove forests and along the coast, skirting an ancient coral reef, mud flats and sand banks that emerge only during low tide. There was also a 20-meter-high viewing tower, which, not surprisingly, had been commandeered by another group of bird-watchers.

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The afternoon was waning, so I abandoned plans to return to Recovery and Rest, and instead resolved to find two geocaches stashed not far from the boat jetty. The first, named Treasure Island, was hidden along a beautiful stretch of trail between two freshwater creeks. There were plenty of hikers around, but a quick, efficient search among the trees during a lull in the foot traffic revealed the hiding place of the small plastic box. Two for five. I was on a roll.

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My last destination was U-bin Tricked – the name refers to Japan’s invasion of Singapore in February 1942, when the Japanese duped the Allies into believing the assault would come from the northeast. The Allies, falling for the ruse, deployed their freshest troops on Pulau Ubin, leaving the northwest coast of Singapore virtually undefended against the actual attack.

I’d like to be able to report that my last geocache search was successful, but I’d be fibbing. I did find the location – an old concrete bunker cleverly concealed inside a banyan tree – but upon entering the dark, enclosed space was confronted by a foul odor and a swarm of buzzing wasps.

I didn’t stick around long enough to determine the source of the smell or to assess precisely how angry the wasps might be at my intrusion. Rather, I beat a hasty retreat while wondering whether Pokemon Go might be an easier, less hazardous hobby to pursue.

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Written by latefornowhere

December 13, 2016 at 1:53 pm

Goat-roasting mountain bikers dominate downhill race at Myanmar National Cycling Championships

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After a four-year hiatus, Myanmar’s national cycling championships returned with a vengeance from December 2 to 6, with hard-fought medals awarded in the disciplines of road racing, BMX, mountain bike downhill and mountain bike cross-country.

The Myanmar Cycling Federation (MCF), which organized the event, underwent major restructuring in 2014 and last year set about reviving the sport in the country by holding more events and bringing in more sponsors, such as Myan Shwe Pyi Tractors, Myanmar CP Livestock, 100 Plus and AMI Insurance.

“This is the second year we started seriously organizing cycling races, and the first time in four years we have held the national cycling championships. I think overall it’s a great start,” said MCF president Khin Maung Win.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm among the cyclists. This event has focused more on elite riders, so we don’t see heavy participation from all the cyclists out there who have emerged in the past two or three years. There are many cyclists out there, but this level of competition is something new in Myanmar.”

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The championships kicked off with a three-day road stage race. Prizes were awarded to the top finishers on each day, but the national champion’s jersey was given to the cyclist who completed all three days with the fastest accumulated time.

The first race saw the field of 42 competitors ride 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Nyaung U to Meiktila. A crash on a sandy section of road about 30km into the race took down 10 riders, all of whom were able to remount and continue racing. The combination of hills and stiff headwind split the field into small groups, with SEA Games veteran Soe Thant from the National A Team taking the win in a time of 4 hours, 48 minutes, 18 seconds. His teammate Aung Phyo Min finished second at 3 seconds, while third-place Zin Lin Ko crossed the line 2m 16s behind the winner.

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Day two from Meiktila to Pyinmana was similarly contested over 160km, but the course was flatter and swifter than day one. Another crash occurred about 20km into the race when an errant canine dashed through the middle of the group of fast-moving cyclists, causing Aung Ko Oo (Speed Team) to hit the deck. The unfortunate cyclist suffered a broken leg and was taken to hospital for surgery.

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Meanwhile, Aung Phyo Paing (National A Team) and Sai Aung Kham (GTM A Team) escaped the field and finished first and second in 4h 4m. Zin Lin Ko led the main field across the line more than 10 minutes later.

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The third and final road stage was a 30km time trial on wide roads around Wunna Theikdi Stadium in Nay Pyi Taw, with each rider starting individually at one-minute intervals. The day’s race was won by Kyaw Tun Oo (GTM A Team) in 39m 19s, but the overall national championship title went to Aung Phyo Min, whose accumulated time of 9h 38m 37s over three days of racing bested second-place Soe Thant by 42 seconds and Zin Lin Ko in third by 3 minutes.

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On day four, the championships moved to Mount Pleasant in Nay Pyi Taw, the venue for the 2013 SEA Games BMX and mountain bike races. Zar Ni (GTM) out-pedaled 22 competitors to win the BMX championship, while Aung Naing Tun (Mandalay Free Riders) was fastest on the mountain bike downhill course, making it to the bottom in 2m 53s. His MFR teammates dominated the day, sweeping the top 10 spots.

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Aung Win Tun – manager of the Mandalay Free Riders team, which prepared for the race by guzzling beer and roasting a goat on a flagpole the night before – noted that Aung Naing Tun’s time was on par with medalists at the 2013 SEA Games. “He rode an awesome speed. He’s racing at the elite professional level,” Aung Win Tun said.

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Aung Naing Tun, who has been competing for eight years and who bested second-place Aung Paing Soe by 7 seconds, said he did not find the downhill course particularly difficult.

“The tracks we ride in Mandalay are more difficult than the course in Nay Pyi Taw. This track is better for riding at high speed, but it’s not technically difficult,” he said.

The national cycling championships closed on December 6 with the mountain bike cross-country race, consisting of five laps of a tough 4.4km course that included several technical sections and some very steep climbs and descents. Winner Ben Rowse (Bike World A Team) covered the course in 1h 17s, beating the previous day’s BMX champion Zar Ni by 1m 41s.

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Although Rowse is Australian, he was named Myanmar national champion by virtue of an MCF rule stipulating that foreign residents are eligible to take the title.

“The mountain bike track was really good. A lot of the riders struggled, but it’s good that they can see what a challenging track is like and what they need to improve on,” Rowse said.

“There were some good riders out in the front. One guy [Zar Ni] was pushing me all the way to the finish. I think he crashed on the fourth lap and couldn’t catch back up, so I got a bit of a break and managed to win.”

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Bike World team manager Jeff Parry said he was happy with how his riders performed, considering they were competing against the top national cyclists.

“In the mountain bike section, I think we excelled. We came in first and seventh places, and the winner comfortably came in first,” Parry said. “The course was certainly up to Asian international standards. It was fast in places, with a couple of steep climbs and sections that were technically challenging. I think it’s been a successful five days of cycling.”

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MCF president Khin Maung Win said he hopes to build on the momentum of the national championships.

“One positive thing I see is that are a lot of new sponsors coming on board,” he said. “And of course the most exciting part for me is the young 18- or 19-year-old cyclists winning. They are showing great potential. That’s the future of cycling. Going forward, we want to go into the middle schools and high schools so the younger kids can enjoy competitive cycling.”

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Return to Kyaukme

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Eight months after the conflict in Kyaukme township made international news, convincing visitors to return hasn’t been easy – but there are many reasons to visit this picturesque region of Shan State

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Kyaukme township in northern Shan State has been a frequent presence in news headlines this year, and for all the wrong reasons.

Longstanding peace in the region was disrupted in February when fighting broke out between two previously allied ethnic armed groups: the Restoration Council for Shan State (RCSS), which had signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which had been excluded from the peace deal.

The fighting has continued throughout 2016, further complicated by frequent clashes between the Myanmar army and the TNLA. Allegations of rights violations have been made against all three sides, and thousands of refugees have fled to Kyaukme town to escape the war zone.

The conflict made international news in April when two German travelers and their local guide were wounded by shrapnel from an explosive device as they neared Kyaukme at the end of a three-day trek from Hsipaw – an incident that brought tourism to a virtual standstill in Kyaukme township.

The conflict has been an unfortunate turn of events for a town that my wife and I have visited a number of times over the past decade. We had always enjoyed the non-touristy atmosphere, the silent nights, the aimless walks around town in search of food and beer, and the long treks through the bewitchingly tranquil Shan countryside. Despite the reports of war, we decided to return during last month’s full moon of Thadingyut to see for ourselves whether tourists were justified in giving the town a wide berth.

On previous visits to Kyaukme, we had stayed at A Yone Oo guesthouse, which up until a few years ago was the only place in town licensed to accept foreigners. While not exactly cozy, A Yone Oo does offer the advantage of cheap rooms and a central location near Kyaukme’s main market.

This time we sprang for accommodation at Hotel Kawli, which opened in June 2015. The location isn’t great – a couple miles outside of town along the Mandalay-Lashio highway – but the US$45 rooms are big, bright and comfortable, with small balconies overlooking green hills and farmland. We were also enticed by the hotel’s facilities – specifically, by the prospect of going for a swim and getting a massage after a day of trekking.

Hotel staff arranged two Shan trekking guides, Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar, who showed up promptly at 8am just as my wife and I were finishing our breakfast of Shan noodles. We climbed onto the back of their motorcycles and headed west from Kyaukme, bumping along a rocky dirt track for a few miles until we picked up the narrow, roughly paved road that, had we followed it to the end, would have taken us all the way to Mogok in Mandalay Region.

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After about 45 minutes of cruising past lush, monsoon-nourished paddy fields, we began climbing out of the Kyaukme valley, the road snaking its way higher and higher into the mountains. After another half-hour, high altitude pines started appearing in clusters among the deciduous trees, and each bend in the road revealed increasingly spectacular vistas of deep ravines and knife-edge ridgelines. We passed Shan, Palaung, Lisu and Gurkha villages, and finally stopped for a rest at a roadside shop for green tea and kao moon hodong – sticky rice and sugar wrapped in banana leaf.

We had hired Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar to take us on a half-day trek in an area unaffected by the region’s ongoing skirmishes. They assured us that the conflict zone was located to the north and east of Kyaukme, and that the road heading west toward Mogok was “safe and peaceful” enough to accommodate motorcycle tours and treks of up to three days in length.

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“The German tourists [injured by the explosive] were on a three-day trek from Hsipaw [east of Kyaukme] to Kyaukme. But the incident happened closer to Kyaukme, so everyone thinks the whole area around our town is dangerous,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Now tour companies in Yangon don’t send tourists to Kyaukme anymore. We tell them the place where we trek is safe, but they don’t believe us.”

But other, far less dire hazards lurk along the way. Shortly after departing the snack shop, Aik Dar, who was carrying my wife on his motorcycle, suffered a rear flat when he sped over a small rock that tumbled from the cliff bordering the road. While he set about repairing the blown tire, Kyaw Hlaing flagged down a passing Shan motorcyclist and recruited him to take my wife to the starting point of the trek.

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It was a fine demonstration of the sort of spontaneous selflessness common throughout Myanmar, except the motorcyclist explained that he was unable to travel all the way to our destination – it was his girlfriend’s native village, and it just so happened that his parents would be visiting her home the following day to arrange the young couple’s marriage and dowry. If the motorcyclist passed her house beforehand, it would be bad luck for their relationship – as Kyaw Hlaing explained, the couple would “miss” each other and the engagement would be off. I image it would not have helped matters had the boy’s fiancée seen him flying through town with a strange woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle.

This local custom necessitated the minor inconvenience of Kyaw Hlaing depositing me at a small general store near the trek’s starting point, then doubling back a mile or so pick up my wife where the Shan motorcyclist had dropped her off at the edge of the village.

While I awaited Kyaw Hlaing’s return, the elderly owner of the store produced a small chess set and challenged me to a game. I smiled and politely declined, as I have been known to lose matches in fewer than 10 turns against even moderately competent opponents – and elderly men who keep chess boards within easy reach are usually better than moderately competent. My intuition was confirmed when Kyaw Hlaing told me the man was a chess master who had won tournaments around the country, earning the nickname U Palaung among his rivals.

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My humiliation averted, we started walking. Kyaw Hlaing led my wife and me down a dirt path that descended steeply away from the paved road. After 20 minutes we turned left onto a narrower track that followed the contour of the hillside, with tea plantations above and below, and a dramatic view of the mountains and sky unfolding before us.

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The tea plantations were cultivated by the Silver Palaung residents of the interconnected villages of Ban Lin and Naung Sin, our trekking destination for the day. Ban Lin was the quieter of the two, and few people were out and about as we walked through. We visited a home where five Palaung women were sitting and talking, and most were wearing traditional dress, including longyis whose colorful stripes represent the scales of the mother dragon from which all Palaung are believed to be descended. One woman with a big, toothy smile practiced the only English phrase she knew – “Be my guest” – as she served us soft drinks.

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We ate lunch at a breezy hillside shop staffed by a cook young enough to be a contestant on Master Chef Junior. Upon our arrival, she set to work whipping up multiple servings of fried eggs with onions and chilies, pickled mustard leaves, sautéed pumpkin and mountain rice.

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Naung Sin was only a 10-minute walk away, and the atmosphere was far more festive than Ban Lin. Most of the locals had gathered at the village monastery for an end-of-lent donation ceremony. When we arrived, a monk was delivering a sermon that was being broadcast over a loudspeaker at ear-damaging volume, which led to inevitable jokes about the repercussions of unplugging amplifiers or snipping speaker wires.

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We quickly left the din of Naung Sin behind and climbed a steep track back to the paved road, where Aik Dar was waiting with our motorcycles. By this time the sun had reached its zenith, but the alpine air remained crisp and pleasant. We stood beside a road sign bidding us a friendly adieu from the “lush and green tea regions”, and watched isolated thunderstorms drift across the valley.

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Before we departed, Kyaw Hlaing pointed to some nearby hills, which he said were occupied by RCSS troops living in jungle encampments. “This area is peaceful because the RCSS won’t let the TNLA come near, and they [the RCSS] let the Palaung live their lives,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Nobody likes it when soldiers, whether they’re Shan or Palaung, come into their village.”

Indeed, the residents of Ban Lin we spoke with betrayed no sense of unease about the proximity of the RCSS encampments. As one of the Palaung women we had visited said, “We don’t see the soldiers near our homes. We’re happy they stay away.”

Perhaps under the gaze of RCSS sentries, we rode our motorcycles out of the mountains and down into the stifling valley, where visions of pool plunges and foot massages began dancing through my head.

But shortly after our arrival at Hotel Kawli, we learned that even as we were out walking through the idyllic countryside and sharing soft drinks with smiling Palaung women, fighting had occurred that morning between the Myanmar army and the TNLA in a remote highland area 50 kilometers north of Kyaukme.

It was hard to unwind when we knew that people might be getting shot or bombed a shorter distance away than we had travelled by motorcycle to go trekking.

This story was originally published in the November 25-December 1 issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

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