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.  


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,