Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Thank you, 2014

2014 has been a good year for me and I am grateful. 

After a rough re-entry to the US, I find myself feeling comfortable for the first time in years. Truly content for, perhaps, the first time ever. 

I feel settled in my cool, sunny, South Loop apartment. 
I work alongside a truly sophisticated and admirable leader, in an incredibly stimulating environment.
I went to Portugal and am infatuated with Lisboa. 
I earned my Masters this year--upon completing my final project in Brazil.
I visited my brother's new digs in Utah.
turned 40 in Iceland! And I feel no need to hide it: I'm way cooler than I ever imagined I would be at 40. I laugh at the little streak of grey hairs coming in near my temple.
I visited great friends in Austin. 
As this posts, I am counting blessings and contemplating next steps in mystical Bagan
Yesterday I bathed an elephant. 
My friend Rick once commented on how impressed he had been by the quality of the people I brought 'round. It's true. I am blessed with a really dynamic, comedic, and dedicated circle of friends. All over the world, but tight and enduring. 

There is nothing that I need. I have been constructing things in my life practically nonstop for as long as I can remember. As my wise friend Melissa recently observed, my feeling of contentment reveals a hard-won in-between state: I am between "building." 

Spot on. 
It's foreign and delightful.

But there is building on my horizon. 2015 is going to bring changes. I am genuinely excited to see how they unfold. And because I am content, there's no longing. No anxious anticipation. Just calm and trust in the knowledge that everything is streaming toward my highest good. 

For years, I have been picking theme songs for New Year's Eve. They are usually optimistic tunes that somehow resonate with me. Sometimes they're travel-appropriate. I'm starting a soundtrack.

I think I'll add Pharrell's "Happy" to the list this year. I feel like a room without a roof.

I wish the same to you all...

Jenjinha

The Good Times Soundtrack 
2013/14  San Diego, California 
"Get Lucky" - Daft Punk
2012/13  New Orleans, Louisiana 
"Laissez les bon temps rouler" - Quasi
2011/12  Berlin, Germany 
"Good Life" - One Republic
"Empire State of Mind" - Jay-Z & Alicia Keys
2009/10  Sweet Home Chicago 
"I Gotta Feeling" - Black Eyed Peas
"Viva la Vida" - Coldplay
2006/07  Clifden, Ireland 
"Float On" - Modest Mouse
2004/05  Budapest, Hungary 
"Section 17 (Suitcase Calling)" - The Polyphonic Spree
2003/04  New York, New York 
"All the Small Things" - Blink 182 
2002/03  Wells, England 
"Me Gustas Tú" - Manu Chao


Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp

Yesterday was perfect! I ate a delicious breakfast (an omelette, toast, bananas, coffee and avocado juice) in a garden hut at the Nature Land Hotel. I freaking love this place. 


At 9:00, a driver picks me up for a journey of a million switchbacks through the verdant Shan hillsides. It is such a windy road that the 18 mile trip provides an hour of scenic entertainment.

Arriving at the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, I was handed a hot towel and a fresh-squeezed lime soda. Four more people arrived within moments, and completed my group. I met Maw (who I have corresponded with many times this year) and our guide, Puri. Matt and Melissa live in Vail (though he hails from Hinsdale, Illinois--small world indeed), and Robin and Claire live in central London. Both couples were married this year, and this was a sort of unofficial honeymoon for them. They were a really nice bunch to spend the day with. 

Puri stayed with the five of us most of the day, providing lots of information about the elephants, the mahouts, the camp, the community, and the business. After a short introduction in the main building, we walked about five minutes down a dirt road toward the mahout village (more on that further down), where the seven elephants (2 rescue, 5 retired logging industry laborers) had just been brought down from the forest. 

These elephants spend 70% of the day wandering freely in the forest. There are no fences. Of this "free" time, they spend roughly 3 hours sleeping and the rest eating and practicing tae kwon do and knitting. At 5:30 each morning, the mahouts leave the village and wander into the forest--individually--tracking their elephant. 

Yes, their elephant. Being a mahout is typically something a man is born into, following generations before him. When he has an elephant (whether it's in a labor setting, or an entertainment enterprise, or in a camp such as this), he stays with that elephant--often for life. 

When an elephant moves, a mahout (and the mahout's family) moves. For example, when these five timber-work elephants were retired and came to Green Hill Valley, the mahouts and families came too. Homes are built. Other family may be employed in other areas of the camp. GHV even built a school in the small community adjacent to the camp to educate the mahout and other local children. There are currently 65 students. So you see this is a community operation, indeed. 

Back to the mahouts grounds and our first glimpse of the elephants. There are 2 large concrete discs--bases for the thatch roof structures that provide shade to the elephants during the time when they "meet the tourists." Each elephant has a small rope loosely around on ankle. This seemed more for the tourist's reassurance: if the elephants wanted to, they could easily break free. Heck they could take down the entire structure if they wanted. They don't. We saw them lift their foot for the mahout to put the rope on. They seem to really enjoy this time: they get fed a bunch of good squash by small groups of adoring fans, who then tenderly wash them in the stream. As I said, I was in a group of 5 people and we spent a few hours in the elephant's company. Other groups walked by, greeting the elephants briefly, but went on to trek the hills (a very common tourist activity in these parts). GHV keeps a tight restriction on number of tourists that visit and how much time is spent with the elephants: they don't want to stress the elephants or strain the environment. 

So we learn about the differentiations between these Asian elephants and their African counterparts--that are not as close as one would assume. Some differences (if I remember them correctly) are: 

Asian elephants have one "finger" at the end of their trunk, a larger head and smaller ears, a convex spine, a bump (for lack of a more accurate term) on their foreheads, 4 toenails on the front feet and 3 on the back. 

African elephants have 2 fingers at the end of their trunks, a smaller head and larger ears, a concave spine, no forehead bump, 5 toenails on front, 3 on back. 

Asian elephants are also shorter: the average 6- to 8-feet tall as opposed to 9- to 11-foot African elephants.

Tusks are more complicated. I remember that Asian elephants may have long tusks, short tusks, only 1 tusk, or no tusks. It has nothing to do with gender. 

Of these seven, the baby (3 years old, orphaned) is male, and the largest of the group with the 2 long tusks is male. The other five are female. One female was blind in the right eye: when she was working, she was poked in the eye by bamboo. To feed her, we had to approach on her left side so she could see us. Another had bad scarring all over from being beaten--particularly on her trunk, so she doesn't like to be touched there. Rather, she likes to be fed directly into he mouth. Another one, slightly more petite, was greedy and rambunctious. At one point when I was standing at her side she swatted me with her tail. I moved to her front and she made a little movement as if she was going to shove me with her head. I'm not sure if she was being playful or was annoyed - but I went to play with the others instead!

But my favorite, by far, was this beauty. (Pic to follow, of course.) Let's call her Betty White. She's in her 50's if I recall correctly--at least. Betty is very gentle, and she has taken on a surrogate mother role for the baby boy. She is whip smart with a great sense of humor. Before I explain that, let me talk about the affection and bond between the elephants and their mahouts. You can see it, as you watch these elephants and mahouts interact--they are super-connected. They frolic together. Puri told us that when one mahout tries to command another mahout's elephant, often the elephant won't listen, as if to say "you're not the boss of me!" Back to my clever old gal, Betty...

When the mahouts go into the hillsides in the morning, they track their elephants by the distinct sound of the bamboo bell collar they wear. Sometimes, when Betty is feeling playful, or just wants more time with her thoughts in the forest, she stuffs mud or leaves inside her bell collar so that it takes the mahout much longer to find her (usually via tracks). See? Looks and wit: she's the full package. 

The elephants eat about 150 kilograms of food per day (or maybe just in camp, not including what they eat when they are wandering--I can't remember). Squash, leaves, a whole lot of molasses and wheat powder mixture, and whatever they find foraging. They have roughly the same lifespan as humans: they can live to 80, 90, even 100 years old, or they can live just to 50 or 60 when they have had a hard life of work, stress and/or injury.

In the morning, it can take the mahouts a few hours to find their elephant. But more often than not, Puri says, the elephants tend to wander in the direction of camp in the morning because they know they've got a good thing there. Effortless lovin'. If they find one another quickly, the mahout and elephant may hang out in the forest a while. The mahouts bring them to camp around 10:30am

Our group spent about an hour feeding squash to the elephants. Then we changed into mahout pants and walked the elephants up the river. We bathed them and splashed them (they like to splash back), and then walked them back for more squash! 

Around 1:00 we hiked up a hill to plant a teak tree. All of the primary forest in this region was destroyed about 50-60 years ago by the timber industry and trees were not replanted as they were harvested. It was only within the last couple decades that efforts have been made to restore the forest. Sure it looks lush now, but the trees are still far from mature. So visitors can plant a tree if they wish--every person leaving their mark on the restoration process.

We headed back to the main building for lunch. Great backdrop, nice meal, lovely presentation, fun conversation with like-minded travelers. 

After lunch we could do as we pleased: walk around and/or go back and feed the elephants. This was a no-brainer.

Shortly after 3pm, the mahouts took the elephants back to the forest--each one heading off in a different direction to reduce damage that a "herd of elephants" can cause. 

Walking back to the main building with Puri, I learned that he lives in Kalaw with his wife and children. His English is very good because he is curious and motivated, attributes which have led him to work in tourism in Malaysia and Thailand. He was childhood friends with the fellow who opened GHV in 2011, and so his friend offered him a career change, the chance to come give visitors this experience. 

GHV is truly impressive, especially considering its short existence. They have built gorgeous grounds, including a village for the mahouts' families. They engage with the community, educating children and adults alike. They keep a very close watch on the health and care of the elephants and mahouts, and keep their visitor numbers to a minimum. It is a balance, because they are a privately owned business and do not receive support from the government or an NGO. They rely on the visitors to earn the funds to keep this operation afloat, but clearly they make the funds go a long way. It's a family-run enterprise. Maw runs the guest relations side. Her father worked in the timber industry, and her uncle is an elephant veterinarian--both now running pieces of GHV. 

I cannot say enough good things about this place, the experience, and the great work these people are doing. I strongly encourage all to come for a visit! Reservations are required: remember they keep their visitor numbers very small. 

I don't see an option for donations on their page, yet, but where there's a will there's a way, right? 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Travel low (but only for a few hours)

My friends at the Smart Hotel hooked me up with a ticket to Kalaw on Shwe Nan Taw bus line, departing at 8:30pm on Sunday. (Humorous side note: I just had to take a poll to see if today was, in fact, Monday. I'm on "vacation time" and sleep-whacked, so, unreliable.)

Episode 1: There's an inebriated man--I'll call him Homer Simpson--on the bus being a general, but harmless, nuisance.

Episode 2: There's an older couple (German or Dutch?) seated behind him that really should have thought twice about travel to Myanmar... maybe even travel at all. They are intolerant, and Homer is causing their blood pressure to skyrocket, primarily because he has the audacity to be showing signs of intoxication and yet have two more beers in his sack. Homer was touching the back of his own seat--thereby putting his hands in Mr. German/Dutch's declared (though not actual) personal space. The reaction is excessive, as Mr. G/D loudly declares he "will cut Homer's hands off" if Homer crosses the imaginary line again. Ok, sure. That's a reasonable next step. Pandemonium ensues.

Episode 3: As a result of Episode 2, we depart 10 minutes behind schedule. We make a right turn out of the bus station parking lot. A few blocks up the road, and maybe 2 minutes later, the driver is attempting a left turn onto a main road. As I mentioned, the traffic pattern is General Chaos: we T-bone a small car. I didn't actually see the impact, though we weren't going fast, and frankly it seems the car's driver had entered a no-win contest based on ego. He lost. Now what?

Nothing. We stopped a few minutes. Then a few more, up the road at a filling station--presumably to get a well-lit assessment of the damage. Then we left for Kalaw.

Alright then.

On the bus, I was served a cup a coffee. Then a Mandalay donut and a wet wipe. And then I was given my Passenger Prize: a 2015 Shwe Nan Taw calendar. Awesome.

Our ETA wasn't clear. I had heard mixed information: the Madalay-Kalaw journey is 6 hours, no 8, no 10. The later the arrival, the better, from my perspective: 1) Kalaw is in the mountains and it gets cold at night, 2) I don't have a place to sleep until tomorrow--with an early afternoon check-in. To be clear, the one piece left to chance on my itinerary was the Mandalay-Kalaw transportation. I had vague ideas of methods, timing, and prices, but nothing was certain. It couldn't be, because there was no way to book any arrangements online. So I had kind of prepared myself mentally for this to be a less-than-ideal evening.

And so it was.

The bus pulled into Kalaw at 2:30am. Oh, perfect! At the "stop" (where the bus pulled to the side of the road), an older gentleman with a dubious air was hawking a bed in a "shared room" for US $7. Perhaps it would have been good to accept, but I felt uncomfortable about going heavens-knows-where in the middle of the night to sleep in some room where others are already asleep. It could be his kids in this "room for rent," or in-laws or backpackers... Who knows? I decided to wait for sunrise at the a 24-hour "café" up the road. Know this: Kalaw is tiny. There shouldn't be anything open 24 hours--so I feel lucky. But this place is...

...where I would spend the next 4 cold hours. With the exception of the two breaks attending to Mother Nature on the dirt road behind said "café"--which has no bathroom. It's a super dingy place, with 10" stools that are not designed for long-term (or short-term) comfort. Mini-tables (16"H) complete the set.

Initially, there are 11 other patrons, all male, all locals--plus the lad running the place. They serve the worst coffee ever... but it's better than roaming dark streets. There's even some Tom Cruise movie on HBO. And against all odds, wifi.

Sure. Why not?

Two hours later, my humor is waning. I'm tired, cold, and had resisted peeing in the dark alley until I had lost all hope of an alternative. I grapple with my frustration at whoever had the genius idea to drop tourists in a shuttered town at 2:30 am and simple gratitude for the fact that I am on holiday in Myanmar. I knew that the latter will win, but at that moment it was a dead heat.

Lucky for me, entertainment arrived around 4:30. First, in the form of English-speaking local Ko Min, who runs a trekking company to Inle Lake. We had a nice conversation: he's a funny, curious, smart and amiable fellow.

About the time that Ko Min had to get on with his day, other backpackers arrived. First, three solo travelers that started going the same route--a Swiss guy and girl, and a Dutch guy. Next, a French couple. (Incidentally, the Europeans are a few steps ahead of the USAmericans in catching on to the delights of Myanmar.) Among these new "single serving friends," I whiled away over 2 hours in better spirits. I ate "parata with egg" (yum) and waited for sunrise so I could venture out on the road toward my B&B.

To be courteous, I will abstain from naming the place. It's located a 30 minute walk, mostly uphill, from the village center. There are no street lights and no street signage that would be useful to a foreigner--so obviously I wouldn't have set off alone in the dark. Much better to get desperately lost during daytime. Plus, even if I had gone night wandering, and had miraculously found the place, no one would have been awake to let me in, and surely the limited rooms would be occupied.

I arrived at Guesthouse-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless (heretofore, "Guesthouse") shortly after 7:00am. I was greeted by the owner, who I had corresponded with on numerous occassions since my April booking. I asked to drop my luggage--understanding that I wouldn't have a space for several hours. He tells me that there's a nice hill hike just up the road. There are lovely views at the top, he says, and it will take about 90 minutes--about the amount he'll need to prepare my room.



Note 1: The owner is not Burmese. At the time I thought this might be an advantage: perhaps he was more in tune with Western comforts and business practices. I would later realize this was a patently erroneous assumption.

Note 2: Eight months ago I selected this Guesthouse, after due diligence, for its charming, secluded, garden bungalows. I prepaid for two people (as is the custom when traveling as a single but wanting a private room) with my reservation: US$40/night for two nights. When I booked the room, the owner emailed to say that he hadn't yet updated the booking site (Agoda) with the high season prices, but he wouldn't require a 2-person payment for a single. All told, though I only paid $40 when I would have otherwise paid $44/single/night for the garden bungalow in high season, the owner would honor the (mis)pricing.

Or not.

I had a few misgivings recently, because the owner wasn't good about responding to my emails requesting confirmation. I've read several stories in Myanmar forums that mentioned people with reservations (prepaid or not) arriving to find their rooms "unavailable" in the high season.  So you better believe I pestered every accommodation I pre-booked to confirm and re-confirm.

Given the well-documented Mandalay-Kalaw transportation mystery, when I realized (the day prior to the bus journey, when I arrived at the Smart Hotel) that I would arrive in Kalaw inconveniently early, I emailed the Guesthouse to ask for advice. No response.

So I get to the Guesthouse, exhausted and cold, and the owner informs me that I am now in the single bed room in the home, rather than in one of the three garden bungalows. This room, unfortunately, overlooks the noisy construction site of a new hotel about 50 feet from the window. I am really unpleased to hear this.

Seriously? I booked and paid for a particular room 8 months ago--and he's telling me, in not so many words, that because I am traveling solo and had paid that -$4 rate (his error), he just bumped me into a lesser room to accommodate other guests, in spite of my confirmationS.

Hmmmm. Ok. I mentioned, uber-politely that I was a little disappointed, but he did nothing to acquiesce. He did offer me breakfast in a corner for K2,500.

Nobody puts Baby in the corner.

I go for that walk.

You know what? NOT ok. A little over an hour later I return and tell him that I would like a refund and for him to find a comparable place in town for me to stay. He was polite but not apologetic. He purported that his was one of the lowest rates in town (which I knew to be false), and that "others [guesthouse proprieters] get angry at me for my low rates." Yeah, sure. He tried to subtract the Agoda booking commission from my refund, since I "was canceling." Uh, nope. I am not canceling. You re-sold a room (three times over) that I had paid for, and downgraded my booking without advisement or concession. Nope. His $14 commission loss was not my concern.

In the end, he refunded my money in full and had a young lady that worked for him take me (on her motorbike--an adventure in itself: her slight frame, my not-slight frame, and my big backpack on a tiny scooter!) to a friends' place across town.

That place is Nature Land Hotel (the original, not #2), and I lucked out. There is no hot water, but who cares? Every other aspect is totally my speed. The sprawling grounds are goregous. I have a traditional bungalow. The staff are amazing. They serve the most delightful breakfast--different each morning, in private little huts surrounded by lush gardens. And it was less than half the price that the Guesthouse owner had charged me.

Moreover, the Burmese proprieters and staff of Nature Land have already (in a matter of hours) exceeded all expectations of kindness, courtesy, and service. They confirmed my New Years Eve flight on Air KBZ to Bagan, and they made sure that all of the logistics for tomorrow's visit to Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp goes off without a hitch.

Which brings me, finally, to close on this: my visit to GHV, where I will bathe elephants, hike, and plant teak trees--and learn a ton about regional conservation efforts--had been the expected pinnacle of this entire trip. Let's see!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Travel high

And after all of that effort?

Pure traveler bliss.

Travel really is my drug. It's a shot to feel alive. Energized. Engaged. Thrilled. Challenged. Passionate.  I am mainlining now. 

It started when I walked down the steps of the Thai Air plane onto the tarmac in Mandalay. We were... let's call it "greeted" by a dozen rather stoic men. They neither smiled nor spoke--they just watched us. I wanted to take a picture but have better sense than that. I would fight this incredibly powerful urge to photograph everything for the next few hours. I will probably battle this urge for much of my time in Myanmar. 

I left my camera in my pocket because I have read that taking photos of sights/objects other than within prescribed tourist sites is frowned upon by the government--one that is always watching whether I am aware of it or not. Secondly, I read that it may be considered in bad taste to photograph people without consent--and I must agree. On both of these points, after one day into my journey, I suspect these "rules" are relaxing more with every passing day. 

I also read that I had to bring enough US dollars in large and perfect bills for all of my expenses because foreign credit cards are not accepted and (international) ATMs don't exist. I rest easy, knowing that I'm prepared to meet the not-so-long-ago requirement of cash. Nevertheless, I met Maude (Parisian) and Erik (from Montreal, but living in Paris) in a shared taxi into the city and they said they withdrew cash at the airport ATM without incident. 

Myanmar is changing every day. 

Back to the fight against the impulse to capture every image... 

The welcome committee on the tarmac were the only dozen people in the region who haven't smiled at me in the last 24 hours. That part of my homework was true: the people are beyond friendly. I'm not certain who is more fascinated by the foreign-ness: me, in this strange but immediately and compellingly charming land; or "them," who stare and smile and intently survey every move I make with unmitigated curiosity. 

At Mandalay Palace, I saw a Theravada monk with a smartphone taking a photo of two young novice monks ("samanera") and a young girl, like a proud parent. 

Again I fought the urge to photograph them like zoo animals. Until, that is, a few moments later that same monk used gestures to ask me and another random foreigner to pose for pictures with the children. Now it's fair game, right? I handed the monk my camera. 

(Picture when I return!)

And so it was: the next 10 hours were a barrage of images that practically made me squeal with amusement or pause in wonderment.

The truly ancient shuttle bus at the airport, complete with amazing signage (funny topically or grammatically or both).

I saw a billboard image of scowling, armed military personnel and a bunch of text written in Burmese. In a corner, three words were written in English: "Save the Children." I had serious doubts that this was truly messaging on behalf of the NGO.

I have seen exactly 2 traffic lights and zero stop signs. Buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes, and bicycles generally drive on the right side of the road, but not always. It seems that if you want someone to speed up, or get out of your way, or allow you to turn, or even to just make your presence known as a matter of safety – you honk. Honking the horn is a language all its own. 

Whatever you think the weight/load limit is for that car, bicycle, motorbike, truck, or bus, multiply it by at least seven. After all, people and objects can ride on the roof. I saw one "bus" with about 18 passengers in the covered, open-sided truck bed, a couple teens standing on the rear bumper, several large bundles of cargo strapped to the roof, and 4 lads seated on top of those. Seriously. 

Another image that is seared into my mind is that of a young father driving what Eddie Izzard would call a hair dryer with wheels and a motor, with a young mother riding side saddle on the back. The shocking part was that she had one arm wrapped around the waist of a little boy, of approximately two years, who was standing up on her lap.

Incredibly stimulating environment.

And then there's the architecture. The intricately carved teak temples, buddhas and spires, mirrors, bright colors and gold-leaf galore. The remnants of British colonialism. The hodge-podge of homemade shacks and 70's-regime-inspired-concrete blocks. Pfft. I'm shaking my head--rattling around the million adjectives for this place. Surreal.

I spent the night at the Smart Hotel. The accommodations are dated and simple (as are most of the accommodations here, for now), but completely suitable and pleasant. The staff treat guests like royalty. The manager, Terrence, is fascinating. He came to introduce himself as soon as I arrived at the reception desk. Someone handed me a hot towel, and then a fruit juice. I had the attention of roughly 6 staff--which is simultaneously pleasant and a little daunting. 

Within 20 minutes:

I had learned that Terrence had lived in UAE for 30 years. He speaks seven languages including English, Burmese, French, Italian, Urdu, and Arabic. He has traveled extensively around the world.

The staff happily and swiftly arranged my overnight bus ticket to Kalaw.

They taught me to say hello (Mingalaba) and thank you (which is easiest for me to think of phonetically in Portuguese: tchê-zu-BAH!). Incidentally, it's difficult to learn even these basics because literally everyone I've been tutored by pronounces them slightly differently. Understandably though--I just learned from my waiter that there are over 130 dialects spoken in this nation of approximately 70 million. It's the Tower of Babel--or whatever the Buddhist equivalent would be. 

[Tangent: My waiter Schwe Toe is 23 years old and has been married for 3 years. He hails from a small mountain village not far from my next stop, Kalaw, but moved to Mandalay at age 8. I didn't ask why or if his parents moved too. I kinda doubt it. Now, I know from my research that education--even just a few primary years--can be difficult for a family to provide. So I dug, as innocuously as possible, for more information.  He is very highly educated: he went to a monastic school here in Mandalay from age 8-17 (a length of time that is vastly more than most) and studied Zoology. His school was a quality rare in Myanmar--and receives support from the US, China, Australia, and Britain. We spoke at length about the life of a "novice monk". Totally different world. What an amazing opportunity for insight!]

I was sent to relax in my room for one hour, and then I'd meet "Pow-see" (the phonetic version of his nickname because I couldn't even come close to the real thing), in the lobby. He would drive me to Mandalay palace, two monasteries, to Kuthodaw Pagoda, and then to the pagoda on Mandalay Hill for the sunset. At the end of it all, Pow-see would delvier me to the MinGaLaBar for a traditional Burmese meal. I could walk back from there. 

(Pictures, pictures... when I get home) 

Bar none, my favorite site was Maha Lokamarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda


The pagoda in the center is surrounded by 729 stupas in a symmetrical arrangement, each containing one large stone tablet. Carved meticulously into both sides of each tablet is the ancient text of Theravada Buddhism. The Pali Canon.  

Spectacular.

Terrence really hooked me up--having Pow-see was fantastic. I was able to see a handful of the best sites in Mandalay really efficiently, with just the right amount of time (i.e. exactly how long I wanted to spend, rather than an entire tour group) at each place. And, I had a private, air-conditioned car. Pow-see even went the extra mile and waited for me to eat dinner outside the restaurant so he could drive me back to the hotel as a courtesy. 

Unbelievable. It cost US$25. I paid Pow-see $30, with much gratitude.

I once learned a little nugget of travel wisdom which I always use: bring a few souvenirs from your hometown in your luggage. When someone goes out of their way for you, you'll have something to give them as a token of your appreciation. Pow-see will be back this evening to take me to the bus station and I am glad to say that I have a little gift for him. 

I planned to wander the city on foot today, just to see what I could find. I watched a few minutes of a soccer game. The young boys were barefoot and very talented, playing in front of a rather large crowd on an improvised pitch--just a block of downtown street blocked off on both ends by several dozen motorbikes. They didn't have uniforms, but they had a referee. Next, I browsed in a combination supermarket, pharmacy and hardware store (international sightseeing staples, for me). I got in trouble for taking a picture of pickled tea leaves (one component of the traditional "dessert" that I was served last night). Unfortunately, I accomplished my sightseeing goals in just a couple of hours--and now I am left with significant time to kill. Mandalay is a bit limited on the attractions to warrant a long stay. This is exacerbated by the fact that today is a "Buddhist day" and Sunday, so good stalling is hard to come by.  I am sitting in the Sky Bar with 4 hours before leaving for the bus. I'm trying to quell the "must see! must do!" sensation by reminding myself that it is perfectly alright to while away a few hours by writing, reading, and staring out the window. 

Still... High as a kite,
Jenjinha

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The math is the hard part


Time is a nutty thing. My plane (number 1, of 3) took off from Chicago at 10h45 local time on Christmas day. That's 14h45, as a point of reference for my Brazilian friends, and 03h45 on December 26th in Tokyo--destination 1. 

Estimated flight time: 13 hours and 15 minutes. 


This trip has complicated logistics, and the least of them is time zones. 


Chicago is GMT -6. Tokyo is GMT +9, or Chicago +15. Bangkok is GMT +7, or, Chicago +13. Myanmar is GMT +6.5, or Chicago +12.5.  Confused? Yes... 


So I fly 13+ hours, plus forward the clock 15 hours, then add a 7-hour flight to Bangkok, but I get a 2 hour credit. Of course there are layovers: 3 hours in Tokyo and somewhere between 9 and 10 hours in Bangkok. Maybe I should add a credit for the 4 hours I slept? Then add 1.5 hours on the flight to Mandalay, but subtract 30 minutes for another time zone credit. 


At the end of it all--I felt way better, upon arrival, than I imagined I could. Phew! 


I was impressed with All Nippon Air. The economy seats were roomier than most. I was disappointed that they didn't recline--but it wasn't so bad, given that I could wiggle my legs a little. Excellent service. Even the meals were tasty. And they gave us "real" utensils instead of plastic. Nice touch. 

Did I mention that wine was free? 


One of the films I watch on the flight was The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and DisappearedIt's a Swedish film, with a rather international flavor. I loved it... except that I started to grow verrrry sleepy toward the end and had to give up on the movie to catch a catnap. I recommend it though, and I'll definitely find it when I return to finish it. Funny.


I cannot speak well of Bangkok's immigration process--or emigration, from that matter. (Uff. What a mess.) Nevertheless, all good in the air, all good on the ground.  And I made it through the roughest part of the travel. 


I spent a fortune on a room at the Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel. It was worth it for the hot and powerful shower and the 4-hour sleep. It was a neat hotel--I had a giant window overlooking the courtyard garden, pool, and bar. More time to enjoy it would have been nice, but I was happy enough--the envy of all the world's starfish, sprawled out across a king-size bed. 


And thankfully, in spite of all the adding and slight subtracting of hours, I am feeling much, much better than I anticipated.

Now, at 21h15 (or 08h45, or 12h45 as the case may be), it's time to wash the stink of Deet off and go to sleep. Lots to see tomorrow. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On my mark, set...

Go!
I can't believe it's here. One day in April I had a rare few minutes of down time at the office. I navigated to United.com, as is my dirty-little-habit. I started to play with airport codes and dates. Before long I had found a reasonably priced ticket to spend New Years Eve in Thailand. 

Though I hadn't planned it, it wasn't purely whimsy. I aim to be somewhere new for every New Years: it's always memorable. It's nice to mark the passing time by creating something in a new place. Meeting new friends, single-serving or not.


I excitedly commented about my off-the-cuff airfare purchase on Facebook, but quickly deleted the post when--at 3am--I woke up from some nightmare about finances and cancelled the ticket. 


The next morning, Roberto & Marianna, ever the adventurers, say: "we'll meet you in Thailand!" 

Rebooked. 


News reports of political unrest in Thailand. 


Roberto and Mari are going to the beaches. Too romantic for my taste. I don't want to be the segura vela (or "candle holder," a funnier way to say "third wheel") on New Years Eve. 


I've been curious about neighboring Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) ever since some renegade I met on the road told me about his adventures there back when tourists weren't overly welcome. I developed a country crush as Bourdain bumped along in a rickety old train in the first episode of Parts Unknown


Why not? 


I started a Googling binge. This proved naïve: Myanmar is not well represented on the internet yet. I can't afford a tour (it's not my style anyway), but coordinating this thing solo took a month of dedicated focus and there are still a few hazy bits in the itinerary. There is only one hostel in the country. Only one airline offered online booking--zero buses or trains. 


As IndieTraveller Marek writes, "Backpacking in Myanmar is a little bit more challenging than other countries in Southeast Asia. It tends to attract somewhat more 'serious' travelers, and the party crowd from Thailand and Laos does not [come] here." It's true: according to the tourism board, Myanmar didn't break 1 million visitors until 2012. By comparison, Thailand received 22 million visitors the same year.

As you may have noticed, I am persistent. And what I couldn't manage to plan ahead will, theoretically, become that great, "It started when I slept in the train station at Thazi..." story. 

Tomorrow morning I depart: Mandalay, Kalaw, Bagan, Yangon, Bangkok and Tokyo. 

This is going to be brilliant. 

May you all be surrounded by brilliance in the year to come. 

Jenjinha


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Iceland outtakes

I am back to Summer and back for sleep. Perpetual daylight sounded brilliant to me--but after a week, my internal clock had become a real mess. 

I'm going to bed! 

Have some funny signs.






Chuck Norris once took a lie detector test. The machine confessed everything.



Chuck Norris can do a wheeling on a unicycle. 
In Monopoly, you pay Chuck Norris to stay off your property.

The Icelandic people are an odd but entertaining bunch.
You should go. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The day I took a tern for the worse.

At the end of the trip, I took off on an epic 17-hour bus journey, covering 235 miles (377 km, one-way) of Iceland's southern coastline.  Some visual highlights from our route included geysers and waterfalls; massive, untouched lava fields; and a surreal lunar-feeling landscape with black sand as far as the eye could see. 








This is not a black and white photo. 

All of this beauty aside, our destination, in my opinion, proved to be the most stunning and ethereal (yet mournful) scene in Iceland.





The slow demise of our glaciers, reluctantly sliding from the mountaintops into the lagoon at Jökulsárlón



In the lagoon they melt away and break apart, until they are small enough to cross into the Atlantic to be swallowed by the warmer water. 






I was compelled to take a gazillion photos, none of which can accurately capture the otherworldliness of this place.



Wait! Is that a tern-shaped iceberg...mocking me?

Of course something crazy happened to me! While admiring the serene landscape I was attacked by a bird. An Arctic tern (I later discovered), and it's a mean little bastard. 


These curmudgeonly beasts hover above the water scoping for prey. When they spot lunch, they dive razor-sharp-beak-first and absolutely vertically into the water, surfacing a split second later with their reward.


video

Here's a tern in action at a lake in central Reykjavík.

So there I am--playing the role of "Melanie Daniels"--walking away from the lagoon toward the hot chocolate stand. (It's quite chilly there, duh.) Suddenly a bird swoops down so close to my head that I could feel the wind from its wings. 

"What the hell?!?!" I thought. Certainly birds must have better spatial judgement than that. 

And again, this time just inches from my jugular. Seriously?

No, two-foot, you misunderstand. 

"This is my space, and all of that [waving arms overhead like a frantic wack-job] is your space!"

After a few more repetitions, I'm ducking for cover under my arms, peering side-to-side to see if anyone is witnessing this madness. I realize that I am wearing one of my favorite scarves--grey and black with a few light-catching sequins sewn here and there. I conclude that the bird thinks those sequins are lunch. 

While running, I unwrap the scarf and shove it down the front of my sweater. 

Death is averted by a narrow margin. 

When I recounted the story later, my friend Spike cleverly noted that I had "taken a tern for the worse."

Tangential anecdote: Spike said that the Bodega Bay, California schoolhouse from the Hitchcock classic The Birds had been converted to a restaurant. Spike's friend had been a chef there in the 1970's. Once, a customer complained to the waitress that his baked potato was bad. Apparently having had her fill of whiney patrons for the day, she picked up his potato and spanked it three times, chiding, "Bad Potato!" She returned it to his plate and said he should alert her immediately regarding any further misbehavior.

He gave her a $20 tip.

Bad tern! I would've spanked it, given the chance. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Reykjavík rolls off the tongue

Melissa: "Are you going to try the fermented shark?"



Jenjinha: "Uh, no. Anthony Bourdain, a man with significant experience in these things, said that fermented shark was the single worst thing he had ever put in his mouth. And I've seen him eat some things way beyond my adventure-seeking limits."

Nope. Tonight I shall have lamb (she says, again)! But first, my descent into Þríhnúkagígur volcano.

Say what? 


video

(press play)  "Þríhnúkagígur"

Normally, I attempt to learn--at a bare minimum--greetings and pleasantries, some numbers and basic directional language when traveling. Iceland is the first place that this felt utterly futile. 





I mean, honestly Iceland: is all that really necessary?

I departed central Reykjavík on a bus with a driver, a guide, and about 15 other visitors from several different nations in the morning. After half an hour, we arrived atop a peak, at the departure station for the hike. 


You must walk over the bulbous lavarock terrain for about an hour to arrive at Base Camp, at the volcano's crater. 



It's not an overly difficult hike, but maintaining balance on an uneven surface works a different set of muscles than I'm accustomed to. Hiking boots would have helped, but I hadn't done my due diligence before this trip. I was wearing Keens, which have decent grip but no ankle support--and my abused ankles were hurting the next day. 


The view from the top of the crater

Arriving at the crater, we harness up and listen to a brief safety presentation.  Then we make our descent in groups of 5 (plus the guide, and the "lift" operator). There's a good video here, though neither it, nor my photos can fully capture the depth or the vibrancy of the colors inside. Check out some professional photos here



The colors vary based on what minerals are being scorched by the magma, I was told. For perspective, this image captures approximately a 75 vertical feet (23m). 


That small circle of light on the upper right side of the photo is the opening of the crater--where we started the descent in the lift. 

Thfreekgnoukerkeegir (or something like that): absolutely worth a spot on your Bucket List.

What the Huldufólk?

The BBC came out with this piece just a few weeks before my visit. One of my tour guides distilled the situation thusly: "10% of us don't believe in elves at all, 10% firmly do, and 80% are undecided--but err on the side of caution." 

Mind you: she brought it up. A guidebook had warned me not to do so because any perceived incredulity on the part of foreigners can be quite offensive.  I have certain beliefs that others may mock, so who am I to judge? 

I'd rather contemplate all of these mystical mysteries over a beer. So I find myself at The Lebowski Bar. 



Great signs, fun decor, nice happy hour specials. 



An all-around good place for day-drinkin' -- that is to say, all the time. 

Skåly'all!


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Iceland: up the hill, under the hill, over the hill



It's late afternoon, the day after my 40th birthday: to the keen observer, this statement of fact will adequately summarize the festivities.

I went out last night, as one might expect. Since it always appears to be afternoonish, I stayed out. 



The perpetual light deceives. This picture was taken unmentionably late. 
Good fun. 

There are videos of tequila shots which shall only ever be seen by yours truly. 

I would like a Viking for my birthday. 



Why, thank you.

True story: The night before my birthday, the mayor of Reykjavík and his well-heeled clan celebrated his birthday at the hostel bar. I almost asked him to take a selfie with me--how great a souvenir would that have been? Me and the mayor of Reykjavík, at a hostel bar on our birthday. Alas, I didn't muster the nerve. 


On to the tourism highlights. 
All the rumors are true: Iceland is phenomenally pricey. I will take three excursions: the Golden Circle tour, Inside the Volcano, and a visit to Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, for which I shelled out $80, $350, and $270 respectively. Yowza. But you only turn 40 once, and I only anticipate one trip to Iceland.

Sadly, this was the majority of my Golden Circle tour yesterday.



I did see some of the fissures between the North American and Eurasian continental plates...



Cool.



I took a selfie and a piece of lava rock at Gullfoss ("golden waterfall")...


I learned that Iceland sustains its own produce needs with geothermal greenhouses. The President of Peru was gifted a bunch of Icelandic bananas to welcome him on his State visit. And the salads are amazing. Veggies so flavorful and crunchy, topped with yogurt and avocado spread. This time served alongside a fresh baguette with smoked salmon, arugula, and tzatziki, at the very charming Stofan Café. Everything tasted as though it had actually come into existence just 3 hours earlier. 



So that's the craic. :)
Today, I'm recovering. Happily chilling. Reading, drinking coffee (they have already named a special drink after me!) at Kaffitár. Might seek out some of the famous lamb for dinner, before a reasonable bedtime because the volcano tour departs at 9am.

Jenjinha