“Did that have peanuts?”
“Yeah, I am pretty sure that had peanuts. Ok, ok. I’m going to go now. I’ll be back.”
With that riff on the cri de noix of the Millenials, who all seem to be fucking allergic to peanuts, Zach stood up from breakfast at the roadside Orient Restaurant in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Northern Burma. He went in search of large bottle of water so that he could 1) try to drink water violently enough that he could 2) vomit before his airway started to close.
Of course, lots of reasonable, wonderful people have nut allergies. I just didn’t know Zach, and didn’t know if he was one of these. I had only met him the night before, and all I knew was that he was 18, that he had been traveling for months through the jungles of southeast Asia—the peanuts-in-every-dish capital of the world—and that he only had one (expired) epinephrine pen to use in case he started to, you know, die.
I hadn’t been looking for an intern. Not that I don’t like interns—there is little to object to about someone who is willing to work for nothing or close to nothing, especially for a plucky new thing like Roads and Kingdoms. It’s just that Myitkyina seemed like a highly unlikely place to find one. When I had taken the the one-stop flight from Rangoon to the Kachin capital, I had noticed how the city of Mandalay had functioned like the 59th Street A Train stop in New York: it’s where the white people get off. Myitkyina is just not a place for tourists, or seekers, or wanderlusters, at this point. It’s surrounded by war, some of it as close as 40 miles from the city, as the Kachin Independence Army fights the central Myanmar government for jade mines and autonomy. I had my share of local contacts set up ahead of time, but was fully expecting to be alone and stay alone during my time in Myitkyina.
And then there were the warnings: a Kachin in London had told me earlier that the town was very unstable. A bomb had killed ten people month before, sending body parts into the boulevard nearby. Everyone told me to stay indoors at night, though the threat seemed to be government checkpoints as much as bombs or guns. A journalist in Rangoon had said I might be able to get to the site of the controversial Myitsone dam (one of the Kachin-Myanmar flashpoints) a couple hours away, but only if the fighting had died down and someone close to the rebels could find a back road to take me on by motorcycle.
So it was with some surprise that just as soon as I set my bag on the concrete floor of the Mytikyina YMCA, I overheard an American voice talking about having just gotten back rom Myitsone. Even more surprising was who the voice belonged to: a rail-thin floppy-haired teenager who, when I asked him about his trip, had seemed just as surprised as me that he had ended up so close to a war zone and then had, out of sheer curiosity, headed even deeper into it.
That’s the good part about Zach Goldman, Roads and Kingdoms’ Intern #2: he does the work without even thinking about it. His current travel binge—over three months and counting—seems pushed by some motor he’s not quite in touch with. He doesn’t want to be a journalist (“I’m more into creative writing”, he told me) and yet he was being very fucking journalistic in my estimation.
The bad part about Zach Goldman is limited, really, to this peanut thing, and also to the Giardia he had picked up in Borneo, and how it all had left him looking quite wan and wasted. Also, he seems to have resources, but had planned poorly in Burma, an ATM-free country, so that he was not only ailing, but also deeply broke. Like Khao-San-Road-after-20-years broke. The first night, minutes after a handshake deal deputized him as intern (actually, I didn’t shake his hand because he was also suffering from a pustulent and very drippy head cold) I brought him to a dinner at the headquarters of one of the religious organizations I had made contact with. The food was good and plentiful. He ate like a wolf, all tooth and tongue and wild yellow eyes.
But all of that even was a plus in the end, because it meant that he was not just willing to pick up a camera and start working with me, but that he would do it at a rate I could afford: all I had to do was pay for his fried rice and his hotel bill, which owing to the communal bathroom and generally homeliness of the YMCA in Myitkyina, was just $8 a night.
But the man does seem to have dodgy luck. A day after I left Myitkyina on an Air KBC turboprop plane back to Rangoon, Zach took the train south. I’ve logged my own rail miles on the hideously slow and rusted Burmese train system, but I’ve only ever been discomforted and delayed. Zach was derailed. Literally. Huge bump in the night, somewhere north of Bhamo, a car ahead of him slipped the track. He was fine, everyone was fine, but still: something about Zach makes me think he might have been voted Most Likely to Be In a Third-World Train Accident in high school.
He is now in Sri Lanka, volunteering for a project connecting water to a school (or elephants to an orphanage, or malaria drugs to a microlender, or something altruistic like that). His big plan, he says, is to go to Pakistan. I wish he wouldn’t.
Zach may not be in school, but he’s a learner. The video and the photographs he took improved hugely over the three days we worked together in Myitkyina. He is also delightfully plan-free in life. He may have smoked big purple mountains of weed back in high school in Los Angeles for all I know, but it’s also clear he’s got enough initiative to get into a college back home if he wanted to. For now, he doesn’t want to. I applaud that.
On the last full day in Myitkyina, he came with me to a HIV Center outside of town. It was a distressing story, all these sick men, women and children—some of the verge of death. But I was working, not emoting. This disturbed him, and he told me so back at the Orient roadside restaurant. What followed was a good conversation about the ethics of journalism, of prying into terrible situations and just watching it all glasseyed. I’m not sure if he bought my line of reasoning/justification. He said he did but I think maybe he didn’t. I’m sure he didn’t. Which is also kind of great.
A half-hour or so after Zach managed to eat peanut noodles for breakfast, we went to the Saint Paul refugee center along the rail line outside of town. It was actually an upbeat and inspiring place, and, with an overcast sky and a brightly festooned mass of humanity who had just been chased out of the hills, it was a good visual story as well. I dove into taking pictures and talking to people, and I gave Zach the video camera (the same one he’s holding in this picture with a Baptist deacon we met—notice his good form, in-ear monitor to check the sound levels and everything).
When I came back twenty minutes later, he was sitting down with a priest in the thatch-roofed shelter and drinking tea. Emesis, it turned out, had visited him after all, and a few minutes prior, Intern #2—the tallest, palest manchild these villagers had likely ever seen—had been throwing up his guts on a patch of grass in the refugee camp.
And yet—no hint of self-pity. Not even an urgency to leave (unlike myself two days later, when my own bout of nausea and food illness chased me sweating from a lovely Kachin wedding among the displaced villagers of Myitsone). Instead, Zach drank a bit of tea, picked up his camera, and headed back into the faces and lives of the Kachin refugees.
The man says he doesn’t want to be a journalist, but he could be. He probably should be.
Top Image by Ralf-André Lettau