Category: Travel

That one time I swam to Myanmar (and back)

One day twenty years ago or so, somebody at my religiously affiliated high school thought it would be an excellent idea to send our choir to a school in the Mae La camp in Thailand to aid in the construction of a new building for Karen refugees, presumably as a demonstration of American largesse and Christian charity.

I could tell you about how I bathed in a river for a week, how I rode a genuine working elephant (not some tourist pachyderm), how two thirds of us got food poisoning, or how the concrete never properly set. I could tell you that we left having accomplished nothing more than two parallel ditches in a patch of red dirt that the local people had already cleared before we arrived.

I could wax political about the sheer, indecent waste of spending thousands of dollars each to send a bunch of American teenagers to do work that could have been done better, faster, and with positive economic impact for the local community. As a missionary kid myself, I could rail against the sheer arrogance and imperialism — that somehow these American children were making a difference or “helping” the local community.

I could remind everyone that the safe, secure, and “free” Yangon that Anthony Bourdain enjoys today is thanks to a successful military campaign to suppress all the ethnic minorities (such as the Karen) fighting in the countryside for self-determination.

But none of that is especially interesting, so I’ll tell you about the time I swam to Myanmar.

One afternoon after the church service, starring a special choir of children flown in all the way from America, we were walking along a riverbank back to the little village that surrounded the school. Our Karen guide — a fellow teenager from the school — pointed across the river and told us the other side was Burma. Unsupervised by adults and newly invigorated from having survived salmonella poisoning in the middle of the jungle, several American children thought it would be an excellent idea to swim the hundred meters or so across the Moei River, just so they could tell their friends and relatives back home that they had been to Burma.

“Just don’t go past the rocks on the shore — there could be mines,” the Karen girl said. Good to know.

Back home, I was the head lifeguard at our school. I didn’t need to be an adult to suggest that this was not, in fact, an excellent idea. Unswayed, several boys and girls waded into the river wearing their cargo shorts, T-shirts, and brand-new Tevas from REI.

I decided I could at least sit on a rock and make sure nobody died in the water.

Halfway across the river, the current caught one of the younger boys.

I called out, “Do you need some help?”

He nodded sheepishly as he drifted north toward the Salween River, thence south on to the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean.

I took off my own Tevas (they were really big back in the 90’s) and I waded into the brown water. Once I was clear of the mud sucking at my feet, I dove forward and swam toward the floundering boy. I threw my arm over his shoulder and shoved my hip up under his, pulling him up and nearly out of the water — a move designed simultaneously to control and to calm. It’s also a move that puts the lifeguard mostly underwater.

“Just lean back and relax,” I said as I bobbed up and exhaled. A breath, one stroke, up again. “I’ve got you.”

Damned if I was going to play flag football or join junior varsity basketball, I had taken lifeguard certification twice for P.E. credit. This would be my first real-world rescue. But if I could subdue an ex-Marine Gulf War vet who outweighed me by a hundred pounds in our pool, I knew hauling a fifteen-year-old to safety in real life would be quite possible.

I looked up and realized we were closer to the far bank. I changed course and hauled him with my right arm as I scissor-kicked us the rest of the way to Burma. My feet touched round river stones and I pulled the boy upright.

“Let’s rest for a minute, and then I’ll haul you back. I think that’ll be easier.”

We sat there in Myanmar for about 10 minutes, tossing stones into the river.

Our return trip was uneventful. He floated on his back and I hauled him back to Thailand by his collar. (I suppose my story’s boring ending proves that it’s true. The most dramatic part of a good, made-up story isn’t in the middle.)

We never told the adults about all this — the choir director and the chaperones, the parents and teachers. We suspected nothing good would come of telling everyone else of this latest adventure.

On the desk in my office, among the trilobites and bifaces, sits an unprepossessing green stone — a souvenir hastily picked up from the banks of the Moei River, a memento of the day I swam to Myanmar and back.

Moei River on Wikipedia

A fairly well-populated section of the Moei River, nothing like the middle of the jungle where I swam across, hauling an embarrassed fifteen-year-old kid

Hashima / Gunkanjima – a perfect lair for a Bond villain

The latest James Bond film, Skyfall, features Javier Bardem as a classic Bond villain with an equally classic lair on an abandoned island. As I learned watching a recent episode of Top Gear about Bond cars, the crew prefers reality to effects whenever possible, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Silva’s lair is a real place — Hashima (also known as Gunkanjima), off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan.

Hashima or Gunkanjima ruins

Photo by Jordy Theiller

The island was a company town operated to mine coal starting in 1887, but abandoned in 1974. Reminiscent of Pripyat near Chernobyl, check out lots more photos on and Gakuranman.

Via Boing Boing.

My Fellow Americans [Part II]

Continued from Part I.


But then, my fellow Americans had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I sometimes forgot that, but then I’d remember the mannequins at the Peace Museum. By the time we were visiting Yokosuka on weekends, that mother and her son had been lurching toward me each night for years.

Just before we moved to Yokohama, my father’s parents visited us in Himeji. We climbed the Castle of the White Heron and ate handmade noodles at the counter of the noodle shop on the first floor of the building where my father had his church.

One trip I took alone with Grandpa Becraft. We were going to see pearl divers, robots that made cars for Toyota, and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. I was seven, and he needed my Japanese skills to make sure he didn’t get lost. By age 10, I would be giving tours of Tokyo landmarks to visiting church dignitaries, for a small fee.

The oysters were gross, as were the black-and-white pictures of the ladies who used to dive for pearls without wearing any shirts. How long they could hold their breath did impress me. The robots were amazing, dipping and bobbing with shiny car parts clasped in their claws.

When we got to Hiroshima, we went to the Peace Park.

I gawked at the skeletal dome of the Industrial Promotion Hall. I wanted to become an archaeologist and I loved ruins. We listened to someone ring the bell. And then I noticed a two-story building across the plaza – the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

I also loved museums. The first one I remember visiting was full of strange animals and scenes of Ainu men with beards and women with markings around their mouths that made them look like they had enormous blue grins. I wrapped my arms around my mother’s leg. She picked me up and carried me outside to look at a stone wall where someone had painted hundreds of handprints. But I wanted to go back inside with Father and look at those terrifying people behind the red ropes. I wanted to see the elephant with the brown hair again. I wanted to learn the names of each labeled artifact lying under glass and dim lights.

And so I pulled Grandpa past the Cenotaph and the thousand cranes, through school groups and old people following a lady with a yellow flag. Grandpa paid the admission fee and we entered. Immediately, I saw that this was like no other museum I’d been in. I took Grandpa’s hand as we stepped back forty years, to August 7, 1945.

The artifacts under the glass and dim lights in this museum were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Watches and clocks with their hands frozen at a quarter past eight. Melted bottles. Fused lumps of stone, metal, and glass. A hollow Buddha. A tricycle.

Pictures covered the walls. Grinning Americans stood under the nose of an airplane.

Enola Gay crew

A tall cloud climbed from the earth to the sky. Women bare-chested like the pearl divers, patterns from their cotton robes burned into their skin. Men with sores all over their bodies. Children my age balding in patches as their hair fell out.

There were diagrams with red and orange and yellow sections on a map. There were movies of houses blowing down in a great wind. There were drawings of a woman carrying a burned-black baby and a person with blue flames coming from their fingers.

We looked at the stone steps where a woman waiting for the bank to open had burned into thin air, leaving behind only her shadow.

Hiroshima bomb bank steps shadow

And then my grandfather and I were standing in front of those mannequins. Painted in the distance, a river I knew now was full of people whose thirst drove them down the banks to their death. Above the mother and her son, I knew clouds hung waiting to let fall black rain no better for drinking than the poisoned river. Their mouths hung open. Their hair stood up in bomb-blast afros. In my dreams, they would howl and moan. Skin dangled from their hands in strips.

I took Grandpa’s hand — a hand that learned to fire a rifle in 1944 as he trained in Hawaii for the invasion of mainland Japan, an invasion made unnecessary by the horror documented so meticulously all around us. Would he, and therefore I, be alive today if that bomb had never fallen?

Whether logic or rationalization, such thoughts did not enter my mind until many years later.

In that moment, aged 7, I’d never felt more ashamed to be an American.


On the bridge of USS Midway, I thought of what this great machine was capable of, said “Thank you,” and climbed down from the captain’s chair.

March 2007

Nathan and I followed the man in the yellow CV-41 hat down the ladders and back into the glaring sun. We followed the exit signs, walked down the gangplank, and stepped onto the pier again.

Continued in Part III

My Fellow Americans [Part I]

March 2007

There she was, dominating San Diego’s Harbor Drive the way she’d dominated the docks of Yokosuka 20 years earlier. I stood on the pier and stared at the wall of gray that seemed to soar all the way to the sun hanging in the clear March sky. Pipes tangled between portholes and catwalks. A line of red planes adorned a section below the enormous 41 painted in white. Above all this, the Stars and Stripes fluttered in the breeze.

Island Superstructure

A conference had brought me here to San Diego, where my younger brother Nathan now lives, working as a probation officer. He took Friday off and we headed for the harbor. I could see her island superstructure from the street where we parked.

The man in the yellow CV-41 hat sat us down in a waiting area roped off at the base of the island. He explained how this was going to work. We were going to be climbing. “All the way up there,” he pointed. He told us how he flew Phantoms from this very flight deck, back in the early Seventies when Midway patrolled Yankee Station in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

I could see his younger self, strapped into the cockpit of an F-4, climbing to avoid radar lock as the threat warning blared in his ears, waiting for the MiG on his six to stall out so he could drop in behind the Gomer and shoot a missile up his tailpipe. I didn’t ask how many kills he’d had.

We climbed a ladder, walked down narrow passageways, past doors with cryptic red labels, ran our hands over the steel “Ouija Board,” peered through portholes down at the water. The pilot lead our group through Primary Flight Control – a bay window overlooking the jets, the choppers, and the tourists.

Up another ladder, the bridge opened around us, windows on three sides. In the distance, USS Nimitz lay on the water like a skyscraper on its side.

“This is the captain’s chair.” Green velvet, worn through in patches, cracked vinyl armrests. “Nobody sits in the captain’s chair.”

I raise my hand. “Actually, I have.” Everybody turned to look at me.