One Degree of Separation

On January 31, 2010 I boarded the flight that would take Nancy and me from Inle Lake to Rangoon. It was the first leg of our trip home after two weeks in Myanmar/Burma. This blog isn’t about Burma, however. (If you want to read about that you can go to, scroll down to Myanmar|Burma Journal and click on “Take a look.” You will be treated to a 56-page account of the trip graced by my wife Nancy’s photographs.) This blog is about coincidences.

The plane was a twin-turbo prop ATR-72, the single class variety that can take 78 passengers. On this afternoon the aisle was crowded with people looking for their seats. Nancy’s was a window seat. I was directly behind her. That way no hostile passenger could tilt his seat back and invade what little space I had.

I had just adjusted my safety belt when I heard a voice say, “May I sit here?”

I looked up to see a handsome man, maybe in his early sixties, with a ruddy, Mt. Rushmore face, sculptured, and with cheeks the color of a honey crisp apple.

His question was unexpected. People on airplanes are rarely so polite. It made me like him even before he said another word.

We started talking as soon as he was settled. I don’t think we stopped until the plane landed in Rangoon.

“My name is Leo,” he said.

“You don’t look like a Leo,” I said.

“What do I look like?” he was amused.

“A Clint,” I said. “You’re definitely a Clint.”

“My middle name is Ulrich,” he said.

“That’s closer to Clint than Leo,” I said.

“From this moment on, I will be known as Ulrich,” he declared. “L. Ulrich.”

(I won’t give his last name to protect his privacy.)

He was certainly one of the most disarming and charming people I’d ever met. And I don’t say that simply because they rime. In the course of the flight I learned that as a young man he had cycled across the United States three times. He went to Williams College. In a junior year abroad—or some such program—he went to Hong Kong. That’s where he stayed. For the last 50 years.

When I asked him why, he said that he’d been to Nepal, Bhutan, India, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and, of course, Burma. He had been on extensive treks in the high country of Nepal and Bhutan on eleven separate occasions. Here we’re talking Himalayan mountain territory.

“Why,” he said, “Would I want to be anywhere else?”

I think what attracted me about L. Ulrich was that he couldn’t be more unlike me. He lives on travel and from the look of him thrives on it. I was awestruck that somebody could be so healthy and happy about a life that struck me as attractive as, say, that of a professional poison ivy weeder.

“What do you do?” he asked.

“I’m a linguist,” I said.

“I read about a linguist in the New York Times. Maybe ten years ago,” he said thoughtfully. “The article said he was able to speak 50 languages.”

“I know who you mean,” I said.

“You do!” he replied.

“I wrote a book with him.”

His mouth dropped open. I envied him that moment. I could hear him retelling the story at dinner parties.

And when I said do you know who I mean? he said, I wrote a book with him!

I’m even getting a kick out of telling it now.

The man who could speak 50 languages was my close friend and co-author, Ken Hale. It was worth the trip to Burma to know that 10 years after his death, strangers still remembered him.