Ruffled Feathers

Pa Auk Meditation Center in Southeast Myanmar

Pa Auk Tawya Meditation Center, where I lived from March to May, 2009, covers a large range of forest (maybe it’s classified as jungle).  It is rather extensive, with a lay sector, a nuns’ sector and the monks’ sector in which I was housed, plus a lot of infrastructure for maintenance and for bringing in supplies. At the time I checked in there were altogether 700 people living there, 400 of them in the monks’ sector. The landscape is very hilly with creeks and valleys, densely wooded and brushed under. The monks’ sector largely occupies a small valley and the surrounding ridges, that form a horseshoe shape. The Sima Hall, used for meditation, is located near the top of the upper end of the valley. From there you can see right down the valley to the flat lands to the West, and a body of water, that might be a river or the ocean. I can’t identify the trees, a lot of big thick leaves, often as big as a pillow or even a couch. There is, however, a Bodhi Tree right up the hill from my residence. The canopy of the forest is about 40 or 50 feet high. The landscape is dotted with little kutis, huts in each of which one monk lives. My kuti was on the South ridge, and because the hill drops off sharply at that point I actually had a view through the canopy to the North. The access road is at the bottom of the valley, and the Pindipata Hall (where alms round is staged), a library and a couple of offices were along the road.

One climbs stairs a lot. The walk to the meditation hall from my kuti entails walking down 115 brick stairs, turning right to a level path that skirts along the side of the valley to where I would drop off my sandals at a big rack for that purpose. From that point I would walk up 110 marble steps up into the meditation hall. I made this trip back an forth a number of times each day. To reach the Pindapata Hall, I would walk down the same 115 stairs, but then turn left to take 84 more stairs to the access road, which I would stay on for a quarter mile. For the first month I made a habit of walking barefoot to the Pindipata Hall; I was a tenderfoot before I came to Myanmar.

The sky sure is different at Pa Auk: the sun rises and goes straight up from the horizon until it is directly overhead then goes straight down to the opposite horizon. None of this slanted trajectory stuff. I could see the Big Dipper from my kuti each night, but when I followed the line to the North Star it took me into the trees near the horizon. I looked on a map and Pa Auk Tawya is about 16 degrees north latitude.

The valley is thick with wildlife. Frogs are great: They are about half a quart in size. There are a lot of lizards of different shapes and sizes. Luckily I ran across only one snake (piffle), and that one a very small one I almost stepped on one night. It seemed pretty mad. A couple of people have told me that cobras are “common” in Myanmar, and in each case with a grim expression, more like informing me of a national problem than an interesting fact of natural history. Since leaving Pa Auk Tawya someone informed me that small snakes are the ones you have to worry about! (Whew.) Squirrels are huskier and meaner-looking that the ones back in Austin, and louder. Butterflies were abundant, seemingly after the rains started about the middle of my stay. One evening there suddenly were fireflies, and these ones glow almost constantly, not like the ones back home that disappear and then reappear 20 feet away.

The forest is full of songbirds, layers and layers of bird calls: “Holy Moley,” “Looking for a Good Time,” “Wait a Minute, Mr. Smith,” “Prickly Prickly,” “Gee, Willikers,” “[nyuk, nyuk,] Whoo whoo whoo whoo,” “Wheeeeeeew, Bo Derek, Bo Derek,” “Let’s Go to Wheatsville,” and of course, “Cheep Cheep.” There was a bird that sounded the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and there also was what I thought to be a single bird that sounded like two cats fighting. Because of the denseness of the forest one could hear the birds much more than see them.

Burmese Bird

A group of ground foraging birds would often hang out around my kuti and I was particularly fond of them. They looked something like kingfishers, but were not water birds. They had large crested heads. The bodies were brown, the faces white with black masks and the crest grey. They made little quail-like noises as they pecked around on the ground. One day I discovered that they are the ones that sometimes sound like cats fighting, on which occasions they all join in on what I suspect is a distress call.

Another bird Is a virtuoso: He has zillions of calls, something like a mocking bird, though I couldn’t determine if he learned them from other birds. He even has its own audience, what seems to be an approving female bird voice between his calls, but which he fakes himself. One day I discovered that he is also the source of the “Wheeeew, Bo Derek, Bo Derek” call. Now, as I remember, Bo Derek was an American actress who made a couple of “B” movies, like in the seventies, and her appeal was not in her acting ability. Why a Burmese bird would know about Bo Derek, or even care, especially given the species differential, is anybody’s guess. One day I actually spotted this bird; it is all black, even the beak, except for white cheeks.

Another bird seemed to be constant practicing. It had a call that sometimes extended to nine notes, but that it would interrupt constantly at the third, fourth, etc., note, and then try another note. I thought at first that it was a beginner bird, which I could sympathize with as I was myself in a steep learning process. But then it occurred to me: Maybe this is a Composer Bird. Birds must get their material from somewhere. I could hear Cole Porter picking out a tune at the piano then trying another note, much like this bird. It did concern me that this bird over almost two months never made any progress with that one tune, much less moved on to another tune. But I trust that other members of its species are more prolific. Maybe one of them wrote the Bo Derek song!

A kuti.

My favorite bird is what I call the Ruffled Feathers. It proved to be incredibly elusive; I never saw one, even though there seemed to be at least one almost constantly outside of my kuti, as well as outside of the sima hall. Its call is something like, “Wrrrrrrrrrr Wrrrrrrrrrrrrrr WRRRRRRRRRR! Unh Uh Unh Uh Unh Uh … Uh Uh Uh.” The first part expressed anger, increasing anger. The second refusal; each “Unh Uh” had the intonation patter of the English interjection. The third, simply “Uh Uh Uh …,”  resignation. This bird would perform this little radio drama any time of day or night, and generally seemed to be right outside the window, although you could also hear them in the distance. It was as loud as a goose, so I pictured it as being at least as big as a duck. But I will be darned if I could spot one, though I tried.

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