Saturday, March 3, 2018

Reflections From Roma #4

Reflections From Roma #04
03 marzo 2018

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

As time passes here in Roma, I find it more and more difficult to expeditiously execute these postings. I surmise a number of possible reasons:

1. So much has been written - often quite excellently - about this region, and especially this city and country, that I feel I run the risk of being redundant, nay, superfluous.

2. This is our last State Department posting and so - weirdly, paradoxically - motivation seems lacking.

3. Generating the forward inertia necessary to do the hard work of writing becomes burdensome with incipient old age.

Now we can add to this rather lame-ass list the fact that I will soon begin working part-time at the Embassy. Which is a good thing, what with two years left in our hitch. I will be part of a team (or cog in a machine, if you prefer), make good use of my Top Secret clearance (eat your heart out, Jared Kushner), and squirrel away some cash (places to go, sites to see).

And, of course, our Official 2018-2019 Visitor’s Spreadsheet must be maintained and guests graciously accommodated. So, yeah, I have accumulated a sufficient aggregate of sorry excuses for not writing. Nonetheless, in the interest of maintaining my diminishing bona fides as a globetrotting correspondent, permit me to offer these short, but brief observations:

Vatican Necropolis - If you can book this small-group tour, prepare to descend 30 feet and go back in time 2000 years. Utterly fascinating; and, you exit through St. Peter’s Basilica, there to skylark with the multitudes.

Pompei/Napoli - We took the quickie two-hour tour of Pompei. It was surprisingly poignant, but equally frustrating. If you’re seriously into checking it out, book a private tour guide and plan on staying all day.

Tourist ProTip - Taxis in Napoli do not have meters, so get a fixed price. Then, hang on… riding with Neapolitan cab drivers offers amusement park-level thrills, without those pesky seat belts.

Bonus Weather Report - The recent “historic” snowfall did, in fact, cripple “The Eternal City.” Two inches of snow. Shut the place down. Just like Atlanta, but with infinitely better scenery.

Unavoidable Political Sidebar - Italian national elections are scheduled for Sunday, 04 March. No one is quite sure what the turnout will be, but it is widely expected that the Fascists will do well and that Italia will once again be led (de facto, this time) by Silvio Berlusconi. Esto no saldrá bien.

I would promise to be more reliable in my future reportage, but… nah. Suffice to say, I’ll be in touch as I am able and the spirit moves me. That does not, however, mean that I am incommunicado. Recommendations are always welcome, and if you have a question that you think I might know, find, or make up an answer to, please ask. E grazie mille per la tua pazienzia.



Saturday, December 16, 2017

Reflections From Roma #03

Reflections From Roma #03
17 dicembre 2017

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

We are some days returned from our trip to Toscano (Tuscany) and I have been trying to figure out how to write about it. We spent six nights in Firenze (Florence) and three in Siena (Siena), with a day trip to Lucca thrown into the mix. We traveled between cities by train and bus, and did some serious urban walking. We went to museums and churches and were moved and dazzled by endless displays of great art. We took photoz, collected post cards and assorted memorabilia, and even bought a lamp.

And we ate “cibo toscano” (Tuscan food). Molto cibo toscano.

All of which has left me overwhelmed, at least concerning this posting. So, since there are a zillion travel guides about Italia/Toscana, most written by people more skilled than I who are paid to write them, I have elected not to go into great detail about the wonderful places we visited. Which, I admit, is a bit lame on my part. Permit me to offer instead a few redundant yet useful tourist tips at no additional charge.

Preparation - Do your reading. Also, remember Rule #1: Wear the best walking shoes you can afford. And, of course, the Prime Directive: SECURE YOUR PASSPORT. The rest is commentary.

Logistics - Go in the off-season, when it’s colder/wetter. There are still loads of tourists, but not the typical ZTA (Zombie Tourist Apocalypse™). Stay somewhere close to il centro della città, so you can walk everywhere.

[Hospitality Sidebar - A comfortable pillow arrangement is essential to a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the odds of finding that in Italy are roughly the same as drawing to an inside straight. Or electing a Democrat in Alabama. It could happen, but don’t count on it.]

[Transportation Sidebar - Traveling by rail or bus here is quite user-friendly. When it’s time to board the train/bus, however, there is no screwing around. Get to the platform early and gird your loins. And should you have a general boarding ticket, choose your seats decisively and with an eye as to where you can stash your stuff. Common sense, true; but it helps avoid any unnecessary Italian drama.]

Attractions - Visit all the museums, palaces, and churches you can stand and get use to to looking up. If possible, arrive early and try to pace your visits to stay comfortably ahead of/behind the inevitable tour groups. Take loads of photoz, but no flash, and remember: Selfie sticks are Satan’s toothpicks.

Food - Look for dining opportunities away from the grand piazzas and major attractions. Finding small establishments on side streets with actual Italian butts in the seats is a worthwhile goal. Also, unless you actually enjoy queuing up for meals, arrive early (by Italian standards) and avoid the throngs.

Being relatively unenlightened, I still eat meat, although less than I use to. But, while I commend my vegetarian friends on making that choice, I have to say that if preparation of meat may be considered an art… well, we have had some fine dining experiences in Roma, but cibo toscano, especially in Siena, is just ridiculously good.

[Testimonial Sidebar - If you make it as far as Firenze, please plan on a trip to Siena. What a beautiful city. And make a point of visiting la Biblioteca Piccolomini nel Duomo di Siena. It is breathtaking to the event horizon of magic.]

So there you have it; a short, but brief posting, considerately unencumbered by a surplus of information. I reckon many of you have already been or are planning to come to Italy (and if you’re able, you really should), so you can fill in the details for yourself. Meanwhile, Anne and I are hunkering down for our first Italian Christmas, our major outing being to Teatro dell'Opera Roma for a production of “La Damnation da Faust” by Hector Berlioz. A lighthearted holiday musical.
Buon Natale. Onward.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reflections From Roma #02

Reflections From Roma #02
16 novembre 2017

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Good news! Our final shipment of furniture has arrived in Naples, so we will have everything in our apartment before Thanksgiving. With some shrewd household engineering and a bit of luck, we’ll make the place comfy and less like living in a large shipping container. And, most importantly, ready for guests.

We have been grossly negligent in fulfilling our sightseeing obligations, although we did get tickets for an evening guided tour of the Vatican, a time when there are theoretically fewer tourists. Yeah, right. Three words: Zombie. Tourist. Apocalypse. With selfie sticks. I recall visiting in 1980, when one could simply stroll in and hang out, but those days are long gone. The place was packed, like sardines packed. The Vatican is still a must-see when in Rome, but one must gird one’s loins.

[Agony and Ecstasy Sidebar - The climax of the tour was, naturally, the Sistine Chapel. I had not seen it since it was cleaned and restored… and it was breathtaking. The colors in Michelangelo’s paintings are vivid, vibrant, and a revelation to behold.]

Speaking of tourism, one of the benefits of being victimized by the idiotic federal hiring freeze is that I am at liberty to occasionally tag along with A.J. when she visits facilities out of town. Last week found us in Portugal, a country new to me. And I must say, I liked it very much. The people are nice, the food is terrific, and art and music flourish there.

I spent two days wandering solo around Lisboa (Lisbon). It is a lovely city, smaller and cleaner than Roma, with some very serious hills. I caught a taxi to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum), which I highly recommend. (Check out the photoz.) Otherwise, I simply skylarked, did some light shopping, and ate a lot of good bread.

Our next stop was Aveiro, a small town on the road from Lisboa to Porto. While A.J. went to work, I got dropped off in town, a very charming place, complete with canals, boats, and flamingos. I walked, took photoz, and bought some Fado CDs. I also stumbled upon a restaurant where I ordered grilled sardines, a Portuguese speciality, served with boiled potatoes and salad. That was an itch well scratched.

From Aveiro, it was off to Porto, Portugal’s second city, and a favourite tourist destination. We stayed at a place called Hotel da Música, located in Mercado Bom Sucesso, a renovated 50s-era marketplace. It is a short walk from Casa da Música, a concert venue of modern and confusing design (thank you, Rem Koolhaas), where we attended a performance by the Porto Big Band, a 15-piece outfit that played Ellington, Basie, and other swing music. Very cool.

Tourism aside, the principle industry in Porto is the making of Port wine. There are a boatload of establishments offering tours of their cellars where grapes from the Douro Valley are meticulously aged into many different varieties of Port. Naturally, there are tastings. And gift shops. We decided that Port wine, in all its permutations, is a good thing.

Then it was back to Lisboa by train. So. Civilized. We spent the day wandering about before ascending the Elevador de Santa Justa to take in the panorama before sunset. Then, back to our hotel, after a bit more walking, eating, and shopping for Fado sheet music. Our trip to Portugal was “um grande sucesso” and I hope to one day return.

[Zombie Tourist Apocalypse Sidebar - Lisboa has recently expanded port facilities to accommodate several cruise ships at once. It is my considered opinion that these vessels, specifically the gigantic floating skyscraper variety, are a worldwide pestilence and environmental menace.]

Back in Roma, it seems that Anne has some “use it or lose it” leave on the books. Alrighty, then. Next up: Florence and Siena - by train - for 10 days beginning at the end of this month. Then back for Natale a Roma.



Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Reflections From Roma #01

Reflections From Roma #01
04 ottobre 2017

Hello there… Rodger French here.

So… greetings from Rome. Finalmente. We’ve now been here for almost three weeks and I’ve been meaning to correspond, but have been kind of busy. I would like to report that we arrived and were immediately swept up in the history, beauty, and romance of the “Eternal City.” Yeah, that would be nice.

But, not so much. We’ve spent days getting over some heinous jetlag (Delta Airlines Official Motto: “Sure, our seats suck. So?”), getting organized, and taking care of official bidness. Tri-Mission Rome consists of the American Embassy in Rome, the American Embassy to the Holy See, and the U.S. Mission to the U.N. It is freaking enormous and there’s a lot of information to absorb. Fortunately, the local staff really has their collective shit together and provides excellent assistance.

The major hassle we face is that we are basically squatting in temporary housing while our actual apartment is being “made ready.” This can’t be helped, but it means (a) we’ll have to move - again - and (b) we won’t be able to receive our stuff for several more weeks. It’s a pain-in-the-neck, but it would be churlish to complain. Sometimes that’s part of the gig.

[Our Official DoS Motto: No car, no pets, no kids… no problem.]

Fortunately, Anne is getting up to speed nicely at work. Her boss has been great and the folks in her section seem very helpful. The Embassy itself is grand (statues; lots of statues), and provides many services. And, although our eventual permanent residence will be a bit closer, we’re currently still within walking distance to work, which we were counting on.

Since the (idiotic) federal hiring freeze remains in effect, I abide in a state of gainful unemployment. That hasn’t posed a problem as yet, what with all the schlepping, shopping, cooking, housekeeping (well…), and practicing of the accordion. And since the best thing we’ve found on TV is C.S.I. reruns dubbed in Italian (nobody dubs like the Italians), we watch less of it. But we’re really looking forward to our DVD collection catching up with us.

What else… oh, right. Rome. Well, it reminds me a bit of Buenos Aires, only smaller, denser, and with many more really old things. We’ve taken in some sights and done a bit of serious eating, but since the place is swarming with tourists at the moment, we’re planning to wait until the low season to see the major attractions. Mostly we’ve been exploring public transportation, scouting out where to obtain necessary goods and services, and walking our asses off. We’re very grateful that the weather has, so far, been terrific.

[Podiatric Sidebar: Rome is hard on the feet and legs. Ancient brick and cobblestone streets are picturesque but brutal, and the place is lousy with hills. Ergo, Rule #1: Bring the absolute best walking shoes you can afford.]

If we stay on the current schedule and have a bit of luck with our shipments, we should be completely settled in before Christmas. And yes, there will be a guest room. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to put one foot in front of the other, remember to be grateful, and try to make the most of our great buona fortuna.



Monday, September 4, 2017

Stateside Memo

Stateside Memo
05 September 2017

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Since A.J. and I are nearly finished with home leave, I thought an update might be in order. Cue the highlight reel.

Making Plans - Attended a four-day retirement seminar at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA. Lots of useful information, although I still have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of Medicare Part B.

Cinema Review 1 - Went with R & D to see “Wonder Woman” and enjoyed it very much. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are talented and impossibly attractive, and the story/script/direction were more than acceptable for a summer action movie.

Vaudeville Rules - Spent five days in Asheville, NC at ROOTS Week, mostly working on Vaudeville presentations, both academic and performance. Got to pull together a band, which is my absolute favorite thing to do. We rehearsed our asses off, helped organize an epic Vaudeville show, and exited covered in glory.

Moving Day - I once owned a one-room schoolhouse not far from Hot Springs, NC (at the original site of Allanstand, actually), but recently sold it to a dear friend who lives in the area. She very graciously let me keep some things there, so I rented a U-Haul and packed up a bunch of stuff that we subsequently stashed in a storage unit in Fairhope, AL. Had a good run at the schoolhouse and am relieved it’s in good hands.

(It’s a long, yet boring story, but when all our baggage catches up with us in the spring of 2020, the subsequent yard sale will be off the hook.)

The ATL - Parked the U-Haul in Candler Park for a couple of days while we checked in with friends and took care of bidness. Our thoughtful hosts C & D threw a lovely party for us, and it was a treat to hang with a few of our old chums.

And, yes… the traffic in Atlanta is even more heinous than I remember or you can imagine.

Home to LA - That would be Lower Alabama. And, if anyone asks, Fairhope in the summer can be just as wretched as Yangon. Luckily, our house, which is paid for and awaiting pre-retirement improvements, is cool and comfortable. In addition to the usual running about trying to get our affairs in order before moving to Italy, we’ve been doing some quality visiting/dining with A.J.’s family.

Cinema Review 2 - “Dunkirk.” Good movie, although insanely overhyped. And, in my opinion, composer Hans Zimmer’s scores have lately become relentless, ponderous, and intrusive. And actively annoying. And fucking loud. That’s a directorial prerogative, of course, and it doesn’t matter so much in the case of a bad film, say, the recent Batman v Superman disaster. But “Dunkirk” deserved better.

Orlando - Took advantage of a few days with no appointments, cashed in some SkyMiles, and scooted via airborne cattle car over to Orlando, where I spent some quality time with LaBanana and her familia. Even got to sit in on a couple of gigs with Big Tiki and the Mai-Tais, an up and coming ukulele band. Really.

I also caught up with my dear cousin and his wife, who have settled not far from Ocala and have been dealing with a multitude of health issues for quite awhile. They are really nice people and it was very emotional seeing then again. I hope they finally catch a break and get to enjoy their retirement once more.

Another Literary Milestone - The fourth in this correspondent’s series of postings from exotic locales is now available at a ridiculously reasonable price:

I’m sure you will recall that there are three previous volumes:

Collect the set. And coming soon: “Reflections From Rome.” Where we’ll arrive just in time for “water outages.” Merda.

Finally, as always, thanks and all best wishes to family and friends who generously accommodated us, making our final home leave a great success. We are deeply grateful and love you madly.

Fino all'Italia. Onward.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Messages From Myanmar #28

Messages From Myanmar #28
27 July 2017

Hello there, Rodger French here.

Well, I didn’t intend to wait until the last minute, but wait I did. So, for your consideration, here is my last posting from Myanmar. We leave tonight on the 23:15 flight to Seoul, where we connect to the flight interminable to Washington Dulles Interdimensional Airport, thus concluding a two-year assignment here on the other side of the planet. It will be a bittersweet journey.

Saying goodbye to the Americans we have served with is one thing; it’s a pretty good bet one will bump into some of them further on up the road. But it is with sadness and a surprisingly high emotional intensity that we bid farewell to the people we have met and/or worked with who actually, you know, live here. They have all been so sweet and welcoming to us, and we are most fortunate and grateful. We will miss them.

Once we arrive, we spend a week in DC attending a seminar and generally navigating the DoS bureaucracy. After that, we hit the road, with stops in KY, NC, the ATL, and, finally, Fairhope, AL. In mid-September, we load up our gear and jet off to Rome for our next - and last - posting. I think it fair to say that we’re looking forward to that. Our assigned housing is a nice apartment in Parioli, un quartiere elegante, walking distance from the Embassy.

And, until/unless the idiotic Federal Hiring Freeze is finally lifted, I will be officially retired, (although my position as A.J.’s wingman seems secure). I plan to spend my copious free time (a) pursuing musical opportunities and, since everyone we’ve ever met is making noises about coming to visit us, (b) managing guest arrangements. Nessun problema; I do not fear spreadsheets.

Incidentally, I’m considering a title for my next - and last - series of postings, and suggestions are most welcome. Alliteration (with “Rome” or “Italy”) is a must. Ciao.



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Messages From Myanmar #27

Messages From Myanmar #27
31 May 2017

Hello there, Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:

Strange it does seem, but Anne and I have less than two months left here in Yangon, and, as is the case whenever we become short-timers, matters tend to fall into two general categories: (1.) Last chance, like, forever and (2.) Hurry up and wait. The former includes items such as visitors, exotic trips, and shopping expeditions. The latter, well, we find ourselves once again at the mercy of the DoS bureaucracy.

Transfer season is always traumatic and waiting on the essential TM4 Cable (aka “Orders”) is nerve wracking in the best of times. Unfortunately, the hard-working techies who process the paperwork are way behind due to the recent, needlessly idiotic budget impasse. And the fact that our government is headed by a belligerent grifter who actively hates the State Department, and State by an empty suit with no evident regard for the people in his agency, only contributes to the drama.

But while we wait, we continue to check off items in category 1. For example, we just took our last trip in Southeast Asia, spending Memorial Day weekend in Chiangmai, Thailand. A.J. had been there previously on bidness, but this was my first visit to Thailand. Chiangmai is the second largest city in the country and has a rich history in which Burma plays a major role. Surrounded by a moat, but easily navigable by foot and public transportation, the city is lousy with beautiful Buddhist temples, great food, and expat gringos. Notwithstanding the jungle heat, we had a lovely visit.

We returned to Yangon just in time for another cyclone (Mara) and the monsoon season. No worries, we’ll just keep the dehumidifiers and fans going and start our preliminary packing. The plan abides: Leave Yangon on 27 July and report to Rome on 14 September. But for now, we compile, organize, tie up loose ends… and wait.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Messages From Myanmar #26

Messages From Myanmar #26
19 April 2017

Hello there, Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:
 “Ngapali Beach”

Alrighty, then, it’s time to catch up. Rather than bore you with tales of day-to-day life in the Foreign Service (much of which consists of speculation as to (a) the ramifications of President* tRump’s Twitter-based foreign policy and (b) the ramifications of Secretary tRex’s virtual non-existence), I thought I’d bore you with a recap of some recent happenings that arguably bear mentioning.

26 February: Another Musical Triumph - One year after the very successful Album Release Party for “Che, Acordeón,” Anne and I produced another “Small Concert” here at The Shang. I presented a program of Tango, musette, and musical miscellany, and she presented Prosecco. About 40 people, mostly from the Embassy, attended and a splendid afternoon ensued.

02 April: Yet Another Musical Triumph - I have been most fortunate to be asked to perform with The Orchestra for Myanmar on two previous occasions. This was my third and (regrettably) final opportunity and we made the most of it. The Orchestra was joined by members of the BBC Orchestra (serious players), The New Children’s Choir (cats, well herded), soloists from The National University for Arts and Culture (local and very good), and The Strand Singers (expats and ditto).

I was soloist for two tangos by Astor Piazzolla: “Oblivion” and, following a segue of my own devising, “Libertango.” The former is a wonderfully slow, lyrical, and atmospheric piece. The latter, however, is terrifically rhythmic and intense; and the Orchestra, led by our Spanish conductor and driven by the accordionist as well as the Brits augmenting the string section, determined to take no prisoners. The SRO audience in the Strand Hotel Ballroom cheered and we were all covered in glory. I love being a musician.

07 April: Family Visit - My brother is a sincere evangelical Christian. I am sincerely not. But he’s a good guy and we get along just fine. Anyway, he was doing his thing in the ‘hood (Vietnam) and came to Myanmar to meet with some like-minded folks. Naturally, he stayed with us and we had a fine visit. He’s very personable and a good storyteller, and was quite favourably impressed with Myanmar and its people. We avoided talking religion and politics (mostly) and spent time doing normal things and catching up on family stuff. It was nice.

12 April: A Week at the Beach - As previously noted, Thingyan is the celebration of the Burmese New Year (Happy 1379!). It is also a good time to get out of town, since everything (including the Embassy) closes for a week. This year, we headed for Ngapali Beach, located in Rakhine State, a mere 45-minute flight from Yangon. Since A.J. has points with the Hilton chain, we booked a nice place at their resort; lagoon side, of course, because who can afford a beachfront villa?

Us, as it happens. For mysterious reasons, we got bumped up to a very nice place on the beach, complete with its own “plunge pool.” Was not expecting that… did not complain. The deluxe accommodations, along with the Asian lunch/dinner buffets and infinity pool made for a very relaxing week, something we (and by “we” I mean Anne) really deserved. In addition, the staff were all very courteous, considerate, and good at their jobs. Good thing, too.

On our last night, we received word of a tropical depression developing in the Bay of Bengal, making its way to the Myanmar coast. Over the course of the evening, it developed into a deep depression, and finally a cyclonic storm worthy of an actual name: Cyclone Maarutha. We’ve been through hurricanes before, but it’s still a bit unnerving to be hunkered down near the beach, waiting for a cyclone when you have a plane to catch the next morning. The staff, however, was on the case and we made it through in fine form with a nice vacation and a good story to tell.



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Messages From Myanmar #25

Messages From Myanmar #25
07 February 2017

Hello there, Rodger French here.

We find ourselves in an odd sort of twilight zone these days. No more major trips are planned, no more visitors are scheduled, and we leave Post in late July in order to report for duty in Rome in mid-September. From this travel correspondent’s perspective, life in Myanmar is currently a matter of quotidian routine.

Not to say that there’s nothing afoot. Anne is working very hard (as always) to get the new American Center ready for dedication, although the date remains uncertain. I am still working in Diplomatic Security and have lately been asked to help out with visa applicant screening in the Consular Section, where the rubber, truly, meets the road.

[Diplomatic Sidebar - Since Myanmar is not on the list of countries cited in President* Trump’s spectacularly ill-conceived Muslim immigration ban, we are, for the moment, carrying on bidness as usual.]

So… no breathless descriptions of the wonders of Southeast Asia and no dramatic photoz today; just a shout out to say hello and let you know we’re doing alright and representing as best we can. But, just to make this a bit interesting, permit me to offer up a few of the things I will and won’t miss about living in Yangon. Because, why the hell not.

Yes - The people, who have been very nice to us; especially the Embassy staff, who are just terrific.

No - The traffic, which is unpredictably awful and getting worse, despite the fact that Yangon does not yet allow the chaos of motorbikes on the streets. Most traffic signals are still controlled manually by the police, so we regularly encounter red lights that last 10 minutes or more. Who thinks this is a good idea?

Yes - Breakfast at the Embassy’s Shwe Café: Tuesday, Shan noodles; Wednesday, Nan gyi thohk; Thursday, Mohinga. (Feel free to look ‘em up.)

No - The jungle heat permeates. The jungle heat is out to get you. The jungle heat always wins. (Although, to be fair, in 18 months, I’ve only worn socks once, and that was to the Marine Ball. I don’t mind that.)

Yes - Urban wildlife, particularly the feral dogs and the crows.

[Urban Wildlife Sidebar - I was walking on the sidewalk one day and came across three crows having a committee meeting, debating the disposition of a dead rat. Respect.]

Yes - Shwedagon Pagoda is the essence of magnificence. I pass Shwedagon twice a day going to/from the Embassy and never get tired of looking at it.

Bonus Feature - Actual business names. Granted, Ghana will always be the champ in this category, but these are not bad:

- Big Boss Brothers Service Co., LTD
- Brother Billions CCTV and Security
- Golden Happy Hot Pot
- Micky Mouse Bar
- Sweety Home Spring Mattress
- Tony Tun Tun Beauty Spa



Friday, December 30, 2016

Messages From Myanmar #24

Messages From Myanmar #24
01 January 2017

Hello there, Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:

The Irrawaddy River flows through Myanmar from north to south for a distance of some 2170 km (1348 mi). It is the country’s most important waterway and one of the world’s great rivers. It is wide, shallow, and treacherous to navigate. It is also “The Road to Mandalay,” an epithet bestowed by Rudyard Kipling, poet and noted mad Englishman.

At one time The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) operated several hundred vessels on the river, the largest fleet of riverboats in the world. Many of these came from Scotland, where they were built, then disassembled and shipped to Burma (a riverboat with a three-foot draft is not meant for the open sea), and subsequently reassembled in Rangoon.

The fleet moved freight, primarily natural resources from the north and manufactured goods from the south, as well as passengers intent on business and tourism. Sadly, the flotilla was largely scuttled in 1943 in order to keep the boats out of the hands of the Japanese army. But the river, and commerce, flowed on.

Since A.J. and I had never been on a river excursion, we decided to take a cruise on the mighty Irrawaddy to see Mandalay and Bagan. It was pretty epic.

[Visitor Sidebar - We were joined by our friend H, who has visited us twice before in exotic locales.]

We spent seven nights aboard a faithful reproduction of the IFC P.S. (Packet Steamer) Kalaw, a well-appointed and very comfortable boat. Passengers came and went, and we averaged a small but convivial company of 14 along with a crew compliment of about the same. The staff could not have been nicer, and both our Purser and Tour Guide kept us well informed and squared away. That said, cue the highlight reel.

Architecture - A few definitions are in order. Temple: A place of worship for the followers of Buddhism. (Always remove your shoes.) Pagoda: Buddhist temple, typically in the form of a multi-tiered tower. Stupa: A dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine. (One cannot actually enter a stupa.) In central Myanmar, these structures number in the thousands and we visited a slew of ‘em in Mandalay, Mingun, Sagaing, Innwa (home of the world famous U Bein footbridge), Pakokku, and especially…

Bagan - A 42 sq km World Heritage Site and home to roughly 3,000 monuments, some of which, having recently suffered earthquake damage, are wreathed in elaborate bamboo scaffolding while being repaired. Bagan is an Angkor Wat-caliber tourist destination and is lousy with gringos, especially at sunset. But it is worth the hassle. Seriously, check out the photoz.

Commerce - We visited two pottery villages (glazed and terracotta), a stone carver’s street, a goldsmith shop, a cheroot factory, a silk weaving workshop, and several local markets. And, as part of the price of admission, we were besieged by hawkers and hustled, sometimes successfully, at every turn.

[Local Colour Sidebar - Pandaw, the cruise ship company, supports a number of schools in the area. We visited a couple of them as well as a The Mingun Buddhist Home for the Aged. Donate some money, make some merit. That’s the deal.

Transport - Besides the Kalaw (which stranded on a sandbar only once), we got about by bus, truck, ferry, tuk-tuk (a rickshaw pulled by a motorbike), rowboat, and horse cart (less fun than you might imagine).

Shipboard Life - In addition to three squares a day (the food was outstanding), we also were treated to a variety of presentations, including: lectures on Burmese customs and history; cooking, dressing, and make-up demonstrations; Burmese dance and puppet shows; and movies. Oh yes, and cocktail hour every evening before dinner. Very. Civilized.

The River - But as wonderful as the sightseeing and other activities were, what Anne and I enjoyed most was sitting on deck while the Kalaw was underway, catching the breeze, and watching scenes, some of which would have been familiar a century ago, flow by. We felt like we too had played our small part in the story of the Irrawaddy.