Extravagasia

Thursday, August 03, 2006

photo album fixed!

Folks,

I believe the photo album is now all fixed, but please let me know if you can't get to any of the full sized photos in the photo album, or you notice anything else unusual with photos.

Andy

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Interview with a Vampire

We're in transit in Seoul and I feel like a vampire -- up all night with no sleep, cursing the big windows and light, skin and lips in bizarre coloration from duty free make-up sampling and no friggin' idea of what time it is anywhere the world, let alone my body.

Andy and I are trying to get adjusted quickly to Pacific Daylight Time so we can enjoy my parents and Andy's parents who greet us in Portland. We have nine hours to kill here in Seoul before connecting on to America. Eating fun stuff won't fill the hours as the options here involve a lot of Korean barbeque and meat or KFC and Dunkin' Donuts, and the shopping is out of my budget and league with its expensive, fixed pricing after cheap baht-bartering in southeast asia! Luckily, fancy (northeast) Asian airports like Incheon believe in free internet! Alas, in my sleep-deprived-delirium-cum-green-tea-induced-buzz, I conducted an interview with myself as a way to write about some last feelings.

How do I feel about coming home?~> read more

 

Great. Excited. Ready. Anxious. Slightly sad, but almost in more of an intellectual way -- we know it will be a long, long time before we have a prolonged adventure like this -- rather than an emotional one. Everything worked out so perfectly on the trip and we have no regrets, so it's hard to feel genuinely sad. I feel complete and kind of free. This dream has been fulfilled in living, breathing, spicy, savory color and now it's time to create new dreams. Though the cab ride to Bangkok airport was weird last night. Andy and I were happy and full from an elegant afternoon tea at the Oriental, yet stressed from trying to catch up the blog, and it just didn't seem real it was the last cab ride we'd take to Don Muang Airport. Bangkok was definitely our home on this trip as we visited the city 9 times during 7 1/2 months! We made the drive to the airport so many times, headed off to so many places that it just didn't register we were heading off for home. But, we didn't feel regret either, so I think that's the perfect thing to be able to say.

What have I missed the most?

Mitten!!! The ability to call friends and family whenever I want. Balsamic vinegar. NPR. A kitchen to call my own. Laptop and internet access whenever I want it. (Pathetic, I know...but c'est la vie.) Not sweating on my upper lip. Farmers markets that don't make me dry heave. Dry feet. Not needing to make numerous decisions each day (what to see, where to eat, how to get there...). Walking down a street in total anonymity. Table cream for tea. Clothes that make me feel, and I suppose look, like me instead of sporty, practical, can sweat to death in, travel stuff.

Did I ever lose the edge on traveling?

There were a few moments in Myanmar when I felt my patience and ability to revel in the moment waning. I don't think it was a function of the country, but instead a function of the hard travel. The lack of electricity and merciless heat sucked, plus I am totally over forced bare feet in public places! Both Andy and I were less receptive to sales pitches and more depressed by people who wanted to scam us for a few kyat. We knew then that we were getting tired of traveling. Of being travelers and backpackers and needing to make a ton of decisions every day. Of always being the other. And we could tell in Bagan as we stood and stared at what are some very beautiful temples with less than the expected glee that our brains are close to full. One can only absorb so many new people, places, cultures, smells, food, etc without getting worn down and desensitized.

245 days is a long time -- does it feel like it?

No. It feels like time froze the moment we left in December because people, places, jobs, pets, life as we've known it have been so far removed from us. It's like Andy and I levitated above the calendar year living in this vacuum of travel, experiences and faraway places. Yet I know tons of things have happened and I know I'm disconnected from people and things I love. It even seems like even the world has changed. I suppose we've probably changed too but it's not clear to me how that manifests in our lives. I'm not sure what type of transition is ahead, especially since Andy and I have an exciting, mysterious, scary new chapter to write in our lives, but I think I may feel a bit behind until we get settled with jobs and a location.

So, no determination of where to live yet? Even after all of this time?

No. Unfortunately. The realities of careers, geography and lifestyle became very abstract and forgettable while we traveled. Not that we wanted to forget them, but just because we were so far removed from regular routines that processing our perfect, future life was impossible. We thought and over-thought and thought some more, and then my dad suggested that we stop worrying, enjoy the trip, come back and research our options in person. And that made sense. Especially because doing research and crunching numbers over here in loud, smoky, slow internet cafes nearly killed us. Alas, we touch down tonight with our minds and options open and it's exciting!

What are my favorite memories from Extravagasia?

It's hard to say, and I won't say because Andy and I are working independently on our personal "hot lists" of favorites from the trip. An excellent project when you have over 20 hours in the air and close to 35 hours of total travel time. Ugh! We'll post them upon return in Portland. Anyway, categories include favorite city, favorite experiences, most over-rated, most emotional, best things seen while riding on a motorbike, moments when I thought "this does not suck!", and others. Stay tuned!!!

How to irritate Andy...

After spending close to 5,580 hours together -- nearly all in a row! -- Andy and I freaks of nature. Yes, yes, you're probably thinking we were freaks before, or freaks for even going on this Extravagasia, but I assure you it's much worse now. Challenge us to a game of Pictionary or Charades and we'll win in some abstract way using inside jokes that make no sense to anyone but us. At this point, we frequently think the same thing, recollect the exact memory or make similar free associations because so much of our past and present is shared and entwined. We'll be "weird" once we're back to "real" life; please be kind.

Andy and I know intimately which situations generate laughs and smiles for the other, and conversely, we know which ones will fire the other up in frustration. Our travels provided numerous experiences wholly unique to Asia that often appear like regional recurring nightmares, and while we've gotten better at handling them and supporting each other in the moment, they still exist. These little peeves never fail to elicit aggravation, soon after there's laughter and sheepish self-knowledge of "that kind of stuff just really pisses me off". One afternoon in Inle Lake in Myanmar, we'd had one of "those days" and were sitting out the monsoon in a cafe. Over mango lassis, Andy and I made a list of each other's "hot buttons" and felt it would be fun to share. You don't have to worry about us going "postal" upon our return, but there may be other seemingly innocuous things that trigger a petite rant and then quick reparations on how happy we are to have our own internet access and be free and clear of papaya. Again, be kind.

Oh yes, in case you were wondering: thankfully, perhaps impossibly, we still like each other after the journey...and probably love each other more.

So, what really, truly and consistently fires Andy up in Asia? ~> read more

 

1) Driving poorly -- in any vehicle, any place, any side of the road {note - this is not unique to Asia, but it got a lot worse over here!)

2) Advertising "Genuine Indian Food" and serving a "curry" using oyster sauce

3) Not having Firefox loaded and having an uber-slow connection speeds that rack up cost per minute

4) Honking with an air horn from a small vehicle

5) Saying "The price is normally XXX but I discount for you..." when there is actually no price listed anywhere and the seller just made up the "normal price" to gouge the Westerner and engage in a game of barter warfare (Andy is now a formidable, crafty barterer)

6) Assuming he wants "Western coffee" and serving Nescafe instant instead of the local strong brew laden with sweetened condensed milk

7) Returning his laundry minus a pair of Gap boxer shorts

8) Demanding just-minted US dollars in some godforsaken backwater

9) Charging a hefty domestic airport departure tax for maintenance when the building is a grass shack next to a runway with cats and birds running wild through the terminal

10) Imperfect or incomplete maps in mercilessly hot weather -- a.k.a. "The Hanoi Incident"

How to piss Tiffany off:

I think Tiffany made the perfect introduction (see her post about what frustrates me), so I will just spill the goods:

How to piss Tiffany off, in no particular order:

1. Surprise her with the addition of Papaya to a fruit platter or mixed fruit plate (she hates Papaya, which grows like a weed over here)

2. Advertise a Coconut Pancake or Strawberry Shake and then say "No have..."

3. Fill a teacup only half full

4. Require that shoes be taken off to walk around brick and stucco temples, with bird poop and bugs and temple shards, and no cleaning crew in sight ... she doesn't feel that's what Buddha would have wanted.

5. Perform illogical security checks ... checking your ticket and passport at the airport door, then at security, then again at the gate, and so on, or similar situations with bags where carry ons are x-rayed before and after check in.

6. Raise a security objection to a safety pin pinned to her money pouch after it made it through security in 5 countries already. This happened in Cambodia just after we had been fleeced for $50 in departure tax and it was not pretty!~> read more

  Suffice it to say we carried that safety pin right on with us.

7. Make your cows or goats eat garbage or make your children sell knick-nacks

8. Explain just how fat your severance was and how that allows you to travel in New Zealand essentially as long as you want (this lady was with her mother, no less!)

9. Make a funky and fun fashion item in "one size" which translates as "asian size" ("Nooo Beeeg Siizee")

10. Make the women work and let the men loaf around all day

11. Break your vow as a monk to engage in no business and con her into accepting your guidance around a temple because you "want to practice your english," then demand money for guiding services when she tries to leave

Yes, when you see us again, try not to do these things to her. Somehow, I don't think you folks will be a problem :)

Only in Asia...

After visiting eight countries in Southeast Asia, Andy and I are well-versed in the region's beauties and eccentricities. And though cultural divides abound, some things, no matter where, no matter how bizarre, are exactly the same. Here's a fun a list we kept evoling in our journals along the way as hilarious parallels hit us. We laughed over them during our last nights in Bangkok and were surprised by how long the list was, as this is even edited. I'm not sure we'll miss a lot of these particulars, but hearing, seeing, smelling or experiencing them in North America will transport us back to Asia in a sensory minute for certain.

You know you're in Asia when...

1) Men have really long nails

2) Garbage trucks play Christmas carols when they back up~> read more

 

3) Restaurants are brigher than your hotel room

4) The vegetarian menu includes pork

5) You check your ATM receipt and discover you have 83 million whatsits in our account. Sadly, not dollars but dong, kyat, rupee, kip, baht, rupiah or riel

6) Potato chips are flavored "Nori Seaweed" and "Shrimp Paste"

7) You go to the bathroom in a restaurant and run into the pet duck and pet chicken...all three of which are located in direct proximity to the kitchen

8) Whitening creams are far more readily available than sunscreen

9) Watching your step means avoiding open fires burning in the street, whether as reverence to Buddha or as charcoal braziers browning up someone's meat dinner

10) Every drink, in every restaurant or mini-market, is served with a straw and if for some reason it's forgotten, mortal embarrassment and face-saving ensues

11) Mirrors hit you at chest level or below

12) Scaffolding is made out of bamboo

13) The smell of fish sauce permeates the air

14) You're riding on public transportation and a sign across a prime row of chairs reads "Reserved for Monks"

15) Everything in your room is ceramic tile -- the floor, the bathroom, the hallway, the patio ... and your bed feels like it is too!

16) A "kitchen sprayer" near the toilet is considered toilet paper

17) Buddha drinks electric red Fanta with a straw -- judging by all of the altars and offerings we saw, it appear he prefers this over Coke and Pepsi

18) "Massage?" is synonymous with "Hello!"

19) Restaurants use their national airlines' silverware as utensils -- we had the pleasure eating with the cutlery of Air India, Thai Airlines, Lao Airlines, Spice Jet, Vietnam Airlines, Yangon Air and Bangkok Airways on the ground instead of the air

20) The flavors of McDonald's pies are Pineapple, Corn, and Taro

Thaiway Robbery

On the good-sized island Koh Samui in the gulf of thailand, the taxi and sawngthaew (pickup truck with seats in the back) drivers form what can only be described as a mafia. They charge exorbitant rates to all tourists, who want to visit the next beach or go out to a restaurant at night. This frustrating situation has the unfortunate side-effect of encouraging many foreigners who have zero experience riding motorcycles to rent them, with predictably bad consequences, but that's another story.

We had chosen to splurge on a nice dinner in the next town away, and paid the high price to ride on a bench in the back of a smoky pickup. Sometimes it feels difficult to find a chef in asia who will creatively step outside tradition, but we did really well that night at 'betelnut' in chaweng beach. After a nice meal, we decided to hell with the taxis, we'd walk back to our hotel and let our full tummies percolate. It turned out to be an amazingly longer walk than we thought, nearly two hours! But that's not the exciting part...

We had been walking close to an hour in a half in semi-populated areas, intermittently well lit by streetlights and getting fairly dark, though not nearly as dark as Myanmar streets with the power out. We were not too far from our hotel, around 1am. A car or motorbike would whizz by once in a while. Abruptly, A motorbike with two young thai men stopped just next to us on the side of the road. One said, "Lamai?" which was the name of the beach we were heading toward. I said, "Lamai, yes, just walking," and ignored the men, hardly looking at them and walking right by, assuming they had some sort of sales pitch. Tiffany watched them more carefully but moved ahead.

After we had walked a few paces, we heard the engine roar and the motorbike came right toward us facing into the shoulder, the front wheel coming right between us. The guy on the back of the bike hopped off, saying "I want your bag!"~> read more

 to both of us, but it was Tiffany who had a purse over her shoulder. We both screamed "No!" directly into the guy's face. Somehow, though we were tense and afraid, it didn't feel like a mugging, it just felt like any of so many other scams we had encountered along the way. The motorcycle had split Tiffany and I apart, but I just started walking toward the assailant agressively. Then, he pulled out a knife, not a crocodile dundee knife but a large box-cutting knife as was used in the 9/11 highjackings. Scarier in the moment than on the shelf in the hardare store, to be sure. I kept my distance, he started to run toward me and I ran backwards, watching him, but I kept his attention, he did not turn away. Tiffany, by this time, had made her way to the opposite side of the 2-lane road as the two men were distracted by my behavior.

We then had a grand stroke of luck. Nearly at the same time, a car taxi and motorcycle approached at cruising speed from each direction. Tiffany jumped out and stood in the middle of the lane, waving her hands in an X, SOS style in a clear sign of distress in front of the taxi. But... the taxi just honked! Tiffany practically had to dive into the ditch to keep from being hit. She then ran toward the other lane to wave down the approaching motorcycle driver, who stopped immediately for us. In all this commotion, the would-be muggers decided things had gone awry and hopped back on their bike and took off. The motorycle driver who had stopped was northern european and had his female partner on the back. They really didn't understand our frantic English, and stared at us with wide eyes. In any case we had no intention to start a high-speed chase and were glad our assailants had departed, so we thanked the europeans and sent them off.

Upon reflection, we feel that the most remarkable part of this whole scenario was our reaction to the muggers. After so many challenges to tough it out through, we reacted without fear, but with pure anger! This may signal that it is time to go home, but it was also empowering because we felt we won in a way. Our actions might not have been the smart choice, but we were fortunate to come out ahead. If you see one of us walking down the street, don't feel bad if we ignore you. We have had many challenges, from simple street hawkers trying to sell you a souveneir, to police pulling you over for a bribe (in more than one country). This incident, more than any other, taught us that we had become tough travellers, for better or for worse.

In broad daylight the next day, we witnessed a woman crying just after a motorbike had whizzed by, the passenger had cut her purse straps, and stolen the purse. From this, we pieced together that the not-as-intimidating-as-it-could-be knife was normally used for just cutting purse straps in a surprise attack. Tiffany had been very carefult to keep her bag on her side between us, not her side next to the road. We think that our muggers couldn't slash the strap the way they wanted, so they tried another method way out in the dark. But they weren't dealing with your average 2 week vacationers on Samui!!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

June 20th - 22nd... Bagans will be Bagans



Above: The corncob in question

- 5:42am... Get shot up with more adrenaline at this ungodly hour than we've had on the whole trip. Have what we've now come to call "The $20 bill incident".

While buying a ticket for the Mandalay to Bagan "fast" ferry (which took 9 1/2 hours on the Ayerwardy river) the government agent wouldn't accept one of our $20 bills because it had a small black pen mark on it. The bill was perfect -- no creases, no corner bends and crisper than both us and our clothes in this heat -- because Andy and I were taking great care to keep the cash in pristine condition. We'd heard people were picky about their greenbacks in Myanmar, but hadn't experienced troubles with any of the moneychangers or cashiers yet. However, this was our first encounter with a government agency, and unavoidable since they've cornered the market on all river ferries.

And thus, at the butt crack of dawn a Burmese man was criticizing our own currency to us, and asking for a new, even more perfect $20 bill!!!

Impossible!?! Yet possible -- this is Myanmar. Andy tried to explain~> read more

 that the black on it was a bank mark used for cataloging, that his dad had been a bank president and these markings were perfectly irrelevant, blah, blah, blah. I seethed because the situation was just flat surreal and then tried to explain to the ticket man that he needed to educate his government on our currency...since they were dollars belonging to our own damn country and maybe they should critique their own kyat instead of ours. It was to no avail. He looked at us solemnly and just said, "Need new money. The government say this is no good." Finally, after letting the nonsense of the situation course through us, we smiled painfully -- very painfully, I assure you all -- and found a new bill in our stash of cash and handed it over in exchange for tickets on the "fast boat".

- 3:46pm... Step off the "fast boat" and feel grateful for the adrenaline crash precipitated by "the $20 bill incident". Why? Because it allowed us to sleep for 6 hours of the ride to Bagan!

- 5:12pm... Stand on red-dirt path in the middle of the Bagan plain surrounded by hundreds (literally -- this is not an exaggeration) of cinnabar brick and whitewashed stucco pagodas and prepare for sunset. Many of the temples have honeyed and ornate stupas rising up into the wispy, clouded sky that reflect the sun with blinding intensity. Marvel at the massive amount of gold and realize this amount could probably feed the whole country. Oh well...

5:22pm... Get accosted by temple sellers. No, I don't need a lacquered bamboo bowl, thank you very much.

5:24pm... Take off shoes for what seems like the jillionth time in Myanmar.

5:49pm... See what is quite possibly our 8,236th Buddha image. I ask Buddha frankly about his opinion on the shoe thing and if he can reign in these temple sellers. Buddha doesn't answer. Andy does answer, however, and tells me I'm nuts!

6:14pm... Climb up steep stairs oh-so-happily in barefeet and avoid bird droppings. Gaze out across the plains and Ayerwady river, seeing temples and shiny stupas north and south, east and west. Marvel at their familiar appearance. What do Bagan's fabled, golden stupas remind us of...? The temples of Angkor? Wat Pra Kaew in Bangkok? Something in Rajasthan?

6:16pm... Determine they look like gilded corn cobs!!! Yes, that's it.

6:17pm... Realize we're templed out and have lost the edge on enjoying monuments. Determine we're changing our flight and leaving Bagan early. It took seven months and eight countries, but we hit our wall. When something wondrous and beautiful reminds you of corn, it's time to leave!

June 15th - 30th... Monking Around in Myanmar



Monks were a powerful force in our Myanmar experience. The country has over 800,000 of them and the only place we didn't see their ruby robes, brown-black shaved heads and golden alms bowls was when we were sweating in the privacy our hotel rooms. Their desire to practice English is fierce and friendly and we received numerous invitations to take tea and conversation with them at monasteries. On our first night in Myanmar, we met one monk while exploring a temple and ten minutes later, we were sipping Nescafe (and sweating), eating mangoes and Burmese potato chips in his monastery and talking to ten eager monks of varying age by candlelight in broken English and pantomime. It was awesome and yet intense...trying to communicate with total strangers using only a limited number of shared English phrases and the Lonely Planet's Burmese dictionary is challenging. But each time, we found common ground in humanity and the routines of life, sharing with each other basic yet revealing things like our favorite fruits, what time we eat breakfast, if we wear glasses and our hobbies.

Plus, we got answers to important questions such as the following: what makes a monk laugh?

1) Tapping on his hard wooden bed and asking if it's really comfortable.
2) Pronouncing phrases like "I don't eat meat" in Burmese.
3) Explaining there's a Las Vegas hotel named after the city of Mandalay and it costs close to $4 million kyat per night.~> read more

 
4) Telling him the correction and glasses prescription of Andy's mom, Marjie. A whoppping -12.00! (sorry Marjie!)
5) Asking which team Buddha wants to win the World Cup.
6) Revealing how expensive mangoes are in the United States.
7) Inquiring what a monk wears when his claret-colored robes are in the wash.

By the time we left Rangoon, Andy and I had spent over 20 hours talking with various monks at monasteries and pagodas throughout Myanmar. Most all of the experiences were awesome and increased our appreciation for the country's special blend of Buddhism, and the fact this culture which values spirituality above all else. But, I also freely admit my head hasn't felt so full and I've not been the center of such attention (without doing anything involving a feather boa, that is!) since I was an exchange student to Brazil. At one point in Sagaing, I had three monks, two Buddhist nuns, and five Burmese people sitting in a circle around me listening to me talk in English and answer the monks' questions. It was crazy pressure and yet, crazy cool! People were genuinely interested and intrigued --in a good way-- because I was different and they wanted to be a part of the anomaly. For moments here and there in Myanmar, I felt like a time traveler or cultural explorer. I got to ask and answer questions from a hidden place in the world, unearthing secrets in an embargoed land and revealing the mysteries of life in the West.

Andy too was monk's best friend in Sengaing. This one monk, who we called the Una-monk because he wore a crazy pair of sunglasses reminiscent of Ted Kaczynski, spoke wickedly good English and freaked us out with his range of questions such as "Can you explain the USA's gun control laws to me?", talked to Andy for at least two hours! But, after Andy answered the Unamonk's curiousities, he took us on a personal tour of the temple and taught Andy how to pray in front of Buddha. Suddenly, the temples, spirituality and constant efforts and offerings made a lot more sense to us. It's not every day you meet a monk in dark glasses or get this kind of personal experience!

However, as with many things on the trip, there was a little of the bitter with the sweet during our monking around. I'm now convinced that some of the monks pray and then prey at the pagodas too as we ran into one bad mango at Shewadagon Pagoda and he nearly spoiled the whole bunch for me. Monks are disarming because they're so utterly symbolic of religion, and one that involves the powerful, slightly scary notion of karma. Somehow, when a monk is around, I don't want to screw up and it feels selfish not to spend a few moments chatting in English! Thus, we chatted and soon this spoiler of a monk took Andy and I around to see the Buddha's footprint, diamond-encrusted lotus bud, sacred parasols and more. It was a great tour of Myanmar's most famous, most hallowed pagoda and the setting was dramatic because twilight fell sapphire blue behind the golden stupas. But soon the shine came off the pagoda. As we thanked our monk profusely, he bluntly asked us for money. Taken aback, and crushed because this monk seemed so sweet...not to mention the fact monks take a vow of poverty and are not beg for anything but food with their alms bowls...we stood there for a minute and he repeated his request of money for the tour. Finally, Andy got out some kyat while I stood their silent and disappointed. The monk looked at the kyat which totaled $3 and then said, "I think maybe you pay five US dollars, because you're so rich!?"

That made us both very angry, but having an argument with a monk in a sacred pagoda doesn't seem good for the karma. Yes, we are rich in comparison to he and most all others in Myanmar, but we chose to visit Myanmar, and also it's our choice on how we spend our money. And frankly, you don't expect to get fleeced by a monk for the $5 tour! Andy gave him more kyat with disdain, and the monk immediately started chanting and blessing us since we'd now so generously "donated". But that was the last straw for me! I stalked off between the stupas in my dirty bare feet, saying anything but blessings. And I didn't care. At this point, I was more concerned about his karma than mine and figured Buddha would understand.

June 15th - 19th ... Mandalay daze



Clothes soaked with sweat (not the rain), and feet dirtier than ever before!

- 8:17am... Wake up and unpeel ourselves from bed like male and female velcro. Turns out sheets are a polyestery-rayon blend (what the hell?) and since the power is out again, we're sweaty-sticky and this fabric doesn't breathe. Ugh!

- 10:22am... Continually feel like visiting celebrity because people greet us with stares, smiles and a gleeful "hello". We're so visible because Andy isn't in a finely-checked plaid sarong (local word is "longi") and I look like a derelict Southern Belle as I've taken to using either a hand fan or umbrella (though in my mind, I like to call it a parasol!) to protect myself from the searing heat.

- 11:04am... Wander around Mandalay Palace and note that Myanmar's intrinsic architectural style seems to look like a Baroque chandelier crossed with an X-Wing Fighter. Unique, for certain!

- 1:09pm... Mull over the fact that Myanmar is auspiciously nestled between Thailand and India, countries with some of the best cuisine in the world, and yet their food is filled with either blandness, eggplant or shrimp paste. We just don't get it! Luckiy, we try one salad with pickled tea leaves, fresh ginger, toasted peanuts, fried garlic, sesame seeds and chickpeas that redeems the country's food status.

- 2:51pm... Curse burmese Buddhism about the "take your shoes off rule" at Mandalay Hill. I continue to question whether Buddha would really want us to be climbing up 1,729 stone steps in our bare feet...? I say doubtful. Especially when the steps smell of incense, urine and peanuts. ~> read more

 

- 3:26pm... "My skin is like an oil spill meets mud wrestling," says Andy at the top. I am dripping too and look like I've wet my pants, but it's sweat, I assure you. (see photo) View is stunning. See velvet green fields of rice and tapioca, a brown-blue river snaking like a serpentine of cigar smoke through the dry plateau, gold pagodas that look like giant bells and the wedding cake-like tiers of the merlot and canary colored Mandalay Palace.

- 3:27pm... Andy and I determine the view from the top is one of the only exotic elements of Mandalay and think it's extremely funny they named a fancy theme hotel after it in Las Vegas. This place looks NOTHING like their lobby, and the vegas hotel undoubtedly uses more electricity than the entire real city!

- 5:12pm... Recover at Nylon Ice Cream, our favorite place in Mandalay and a complete misnomer in Asia. Nylon is an old-fashioned soda fountain type place with outdoor cafe tables, unique ice cream flavors like taro and durian and rare because it's neither a Western chain nor does the ice cream melt before arriving at your table!!! Even with the crazy eight hour power cycles and outtages, our ice cream was perfectly cool and delicious every time. Andy and I still don't how they do it either. Some kind of dry ice and generator wizardry we guess. At Nylon, myriad young boys whip around in a blur of sarongs serving the iced treats and the only adults in sight are customers. Wealthy Myanmar families (either government or police) pull up in their fat Chinese-manufactured SUVs and the boys race to the windows, take the order, run back behind the revolving door of Nylon's kitchen and then dash back out to the cars with orders in brown bags -- all in under 3 minutes flat. Nylon is magic, mystery and madness rolled into one and I told Andy this could be a setting for a Burmese musical...the orphan boys of Nylon ice cream dancing about in sarongs, singing and serving customers and yet no one knows what goes on behind the counters and in the freezers. Bizarre, yes...but that place just had a feel to it!

- 7:41pm... Andy and I become truly Asian!!! Ride on trishaw 2-passenger 1-driver bicycle wearing flip-flops and holding umbrellas in a steamy-hot monsoon downpour to see a Burmese puppet show. You just don't do this in America...!

- 9:02pm... Best puppet show yet. Learn that Myanmar actually invented the marionnettes! Who knew? A Bamar king wanted a wholly-new type of entertainment and tasked one of his ministers with developing a new form of entertainment. After a few months, this genius presented his monarch with a cast of marionettes acting out tales from Buddha's life and the Ramayana and gave birth to fun with strings attached. Myanmar's puppets are incredible because they're complicated and stringed to the hilt; many of the puppets have over 50 strings and the puppet master can manipulate their eye lashes, eye brows and petticoats!

- 9:03pm... Too bad that culture minister didn't do a better job on Myanmar's traditional music. A live "band" played with the marionettes, including a gong, a xylophone-contraption made of more gongs, three drums, two wooden flutes and an oboe gone wrong. To me, for over an hour, it sounded like someone was stomping on one of those plastic, steak-shaped, squeaking dog toys. Odious, not melodious!

- 11:17pm... It's a miracle! Our guest house has power...government power...and that means the air conditioning is already on and our room is beautifully cold. We settle in to the delicious chill, reveling until 6:00am when it goes off again and sticky velcro routine begins anew.

Myanmar photos available!

You've gotten a few tastes of our photos from Myanmar with some of our posts, but now all is available to see. There are not as many photos as from some countries, but we got lucky with a few good shots! Please take a look, each photo is a gallery of its own from a different area:

http://bitjug.com/gallery/Myanmar

Myanmar Hospitality



Myanmar was mysterious for us before we visited, but we had heard good things from other travelers about the people of Myanmar. Honestly, having seen more temples than we can remember or count, the people were the part of the country we were looking forward to the most. They certainly exceeded expectations, which I will try to explain with a story.

We woke up at 5:00 am to rush over to the pier in Mandalay for a 12 hour boat ride down to Bagan. Early in the evening after this journey, we went on the hunt for dinner. Working from a terrible map that had just a few streets labeled, we got hopelessly lost just as it started to rain. Of course, we were without an umbrella, and moments later the rain became a downpour worthy of the monsoon season we were in. We were standing in front of what looked like a junkyard, but was in fact an outdoor body shop in front of a house. Within less than 5 seconds of the downpour starting, two young men rushed out from the junkyard area. They touched our shoulders with authority and said "come, come!" There was not the slightest doubt in their minds that they would shelter us from the rain in their home, despite our very unusual appearance, not necessarily respectable, by Burmese standards.

The young men brought us directly into the house and sat us down at what had to be the dinner table.~> read more

  Two women sat there, an older one who was likely the grandmother of the young men, and a plump middle aged woman with beautiful features. The young men immediately disappeared, but another family member delivered tea to us within less than a minute; in Myanmar a weak Chinese-style tea is kept warm in a thermos at all times, for any guest who might arrive or perhaps just for conversation. Given that the women at the table spoke essentially zero english, and we speak essentially zero Burmese, except to be able to say "thank you", which really came in handy in this situation, the conversation was slow getting started. However, we pulled out our hat-trick of language secret weapons. First, the pantomime. Yes, we've been playing pictionary all these months without you. Second, the limited dictionary in the back of the lonely planet guidebook. While we usually have no luck pronouncing anything, particularly in the burmese language, this dictionary also has the phrases written in the script of the country. So in combination with the pantomiming, it is possible to get a surprising amount of information across. The third element in the trifecta may surprise you. It is a photo of our cat, Mitten, laying in the sink. Showing this photo to people absolutely transcends language. Most people in most parts of the world have had an experience with a pet at some point in their lives, and they light up when they understand that you have had that too. It's a wonderful way to transcend the language barrier, and it just about works every time.

We were starting to get hungry since we had been on the way to dinner, but we didn't mention a word to our host family. Before long though, we were served an entire fresh juicy mango that someone behind the scenes cut for us. We didn't know how to thank them, but we tried to show our appreciation as well as we couild. Next, our hostesses broke out some family photos, showing one of the sons was a policeman, and a daughter who had been married in the last couple of years. Unbeknownst to us, the young men had gone to find the member of their family who spoke English the best, who must have been in another part of the town. She arrived soaked, but was quite eager to talk with us, and made it possible to explain all sorts of things since she could translate from both sides. We shared what the weather is like where we are from, which may sound boring but people who have never experienced such cool temperatures (like 70 degrees fahrenheit!) find it hard to believe. We also talked about our jobs and what countries we had visited, and the family shared where they were originally from and where some of the grown-up children were living, to work or with their spouse's family.

In most places where tourists bring their money, there are plenty of folks acting friendly just to get a piece of that money, and of course we had our share of such acts in so many countries. But when it so clearly comes right from the heart, and just small compensation for a mango is flatly refused, It brings straight to our heart the genuine kindness and virtue that can be found around the world. In Myanmar everyone waves at you just because you're a visitor to their country, and so many people go out of their way to help you. The people taught us a very important lesson about the good that can be found in people so different from ourselves.

To Burma or not to Burma?



Young girls with traces of thanaka on their faces (see description below)

Myanmar/Burma is not your average destination in Southeast Asia. The USA and United Kingdom do not support tourists wishing to visit; the United Nations embargoes trade with the country. Furthermore, the military junta which rules Myanmar under the silly acronym of SPDC (the d stands for democracy but they paid a DC-based messaging firm to come up with their name and it really means dictatorship) despises the West, running a tight fist of control, censorship and propaganda from Tibet to Phuket. Rumors abound about wire-tapped phones and government spies who dress themselves as monks to trick Westerners in to talking about the government, Lonely Planet says not to mention Aung San Suu Kyi unless someone asks you a question first and to never visit her Democratic Party's headquarters unless instant deportation is on your "to do" list. There is no email, no McDonalds, no Diet Coke, telephone calls to the West cost $6 per minute, and electricity is inconsistent. SO, why in the hell did we want to go?

Because Myanmar is the seminal, cultural cross roads of the countries we've visited on Extravagasia and it offered a missing piece in the puzzle of pleasant people that are Subcontinental and Southeast Asian. Because Myanmar has a legendary Buddhist influence that manifests itself in innumerable, un-countable temples that decorate the landscape like glittering gold polka dots, and boasts over 800,000 monks dressed in robes of ruby red...and we couldn't quite fathom that! Because we've heard fables on the backpacker circuit about the genuine magic of Myanmar's people, as well as their plight, and it was a chance to demystify that for real. And because Myanmar gave us the opportunity to experience something radically different with its un-favored trade nation status and belligerent big brother government, the chance to personally glimpse a land that may soon dominate discussions on the UN Security Council once, possibly if, the dust ever settles in the Middle East.~> read more

  Anyway, we couldn't resist, made every effort not to support any government-operated businesses and headed off for adventure and first person learning!

And, for the record, is it Burma or Myanmar? Well, it's both...depending on which side of the political compass you reside upon. Burma descended from the British, who colonized it in the 19th century, and stems from the word Bamar. The Bamar people are the largest ethnic group within the country, and most everyone speaks the Bamar language of "Burmese" but it's an amazingly diverse and tribal land with over 135 (no, that's not a typo) distinct tribes. The dictatorship renamed the country Myanmar, which comes from the pre-colonization name Myanma, and the West, who chooses not to recognize the regime, chooses also not to recognize that name. Hence, abroad you hear it called "Burma" but in country we always said "Myanmar".

Myanmar delivered most all of what we expected, plus a lot of the unexpected. Andy and I are so happy we visited the beautiful "Golden Land" as its temples, people, smiles and potential are truly golden. But it was hard travel to sacred places for certain. Little things, like a visa to enter the country or currency, were stressful. At Chiang Mai Airport, the check-in agent was disconcerted by the fact our visa had a pink carbon paper and NOT the white one, and panic erupted on her side and ours. A Burmese agent of some sort--we don't know if he was with Air Mandalay or the government--was paged and he carefully reviewed our documents for a few moments plus questioned the origin of our visa. We'd applied for it in Hanoi and it seems the Thai embassy usually leaves the white slip in the visitor's passport and keeps the pink one. After careful scrutiny and a lot of topsy-turvy tummy and nervousness on our part, we were cleared and checked in. In Myanmar, the local currency in Kyat but the government prefers to get US Dollars (hello, irony!) and there are no banks, no ATMs, no acceptance of credit cards. Thus, we had to forecast all of the money we might possibly need, get it switched from Thai baht into USD, carry it all on us with care as creases, folds and discoloration are unacceptable, convert some into Kyat for local purchases and spend carefully at all times as not to run out!

Arrival in Mandalay was paradoxical. Lovely because sunlight glinted off golden pagodas on the descent and there wasn't a crowd at the airport...only Myanmar-based airlines can fly in and out, and yet bizarre because most of the airport was dark from a power outage! We cleared Customs under emergency lighting, the odd blue tint adding even more drama to our questioning by officials, and we tried not to think about what the lack of power meant to the control tower since our landing was fine. Much to our disbelief, dismay and discomfort, the power outtages continued to be theme throughout our time in Myanmar. It was evil hot in Mandalay and Bagan, and no power means no fans! We sweltered and sweat, dripped droplets on our barefoot climbs up to temples, soaked through pants (no shorts) at monasteries, and oozed liquid whenever we drank tepid water day or night. Many places have generators, but they can't afford to keep them on all of the time and generators can't power every city street light. Andy and I enjoyed extremely dark walks on the crippled, rippled stone and dust streets around Myanmar at night. Walking by an ornate palace lit only by the moon and stars could have been romantic if only it wasn't so hellaciously hot that the last thing we wanted to do was hold hands! Government electricity lit up Myanmar for no more than 50% of our 15 days in the country, usually in varying shifts of 6 - 12 hours at various times of day and night. There was no rhyme or reason, and you can imagine what this does for industry, refrigeration, medical care and traffic control. Electricity was sporadic in some countries on our trip, but never sporadic to the point of scheduled as in Myanmar! This isn't a village issue either -- this is nationwide! In a country rich with natural resources such as rubies, sapphires, teak, oil, rice and more!!!

However, the unmitigated heat wasn't the only thing that made us sweat in Myanmar. There were occasional moments where we excercised a little more caution and awareness than other points in our trip. A few times we wondered if it was okay to nod in affirmation when a monk asked if we knew of Aung San Suu Kyi or wanted our opinion on various political issues. Was that really a monk in monk's clothing with excellent English, or someone else? Why was that monk asking about George Bush and gun control? Seriously, we had these conversations at temples with monks in merlot-colored cloth who pounced on us as if we were prey to practice their English and the tiniest ounce of paranoia set in that was absent in every other country we visited. Plus, we visited the home of local comedians known as The Moustache Brothers, two of whom were jailed for 7 years for using the government in its material of laughs, for their "cultural show" and when they say the house is being watched...well, you're just not sure if that's the truth or good humor. While biking in traffic, and understanding from the Local Burmese that the cops are crooked, you might say we excercised caution by going slow, smiling and yielding to everything. Our passports also never left our sweaty bodies. As foreigners, it's expected you might need to show identification at any point, so they're now extra crinkled and sticky from being near our slick skin for days on end.

You might read this and think we're insane, paranoid, ridiculous...or even all of the above. I mention these things only as interesting footnotes. The Cold War is over and there are only a few places left in the world that we Americans can travel to without encountering the Golden Arches, and it added an edgy, educational new dimension to our travel. Plus, we sense that because of our journey there we can hopefully make a tiny difference in the plight of Myanmar by demsytifying it for a small amount of others and telling of its beauty and how the people of Myanmar deserve more than isolation and embargoes.

More astonishing than the total lack of McDonalds in Myanmar, however, were the people. Its beautiful, friendly, smiling, beguiling people with facial features that roll the Himalayas, Chinese plateaus and Malay peninsula into a unique physiogonomy that lights up with genuine warmth and friendliness whenever you are near. I can't tell you how many "hellos" we encountered each day from the moment we stepped out of our steamy guesthouse rooms. We felt like celebrities walking down the street as everyone called out "hello" and smiled broadly, and like king and queen in a parade as we rode in the open back of a pick-up truck and passer-bys on foot or vehicle waved enthusiastically at us. A majority of Myanmar's faces are painted with "thanaka", a sandalwood paste that functions as sunscreen and moisturizer, so there's something even more magical about a basic Burmese smile and hello -- it's like a mysterious, tribal mask is coming to life and talking to you! Check out the photos and you'll see this ochre mixture on the women and children's faces. The Burmese seemed genuinely glad to see us and whether young or old, they excitedly practiced their English and wished us a good visit in their country. We quickly learned "min-gah-lah-bah" and "jez-ooo-bay" (hello and thank you) and every time we responded with this, giant smiles, peals of laughter and pleasant stares rewarded our butchered efforts. Speaking with people in Myanmar was infectious and we shared more stories with locals, found common ground with other humans more quickly and delightfully than anywhere else in our travels.

Thus after being up close and personal with people throughout Myanmar, from monks and children to restauranteurs and fisherman, we are angry and sad the government does not support its charming, hardworking, deserving people. The cause of Myanmar and for Myanmar is a lot more personal for us. Life there is not easy. Rangoon and Mandalay are infrastructure wrecks, and many of the outlying areas are truly just villages and tribal enclaves. The Burmese people live simply, many quite close to a primitivity that's unexpected with its prime location and resources, tilling the land, living intimately with a core family unit and practicing their special blend of Buddhism...when they're not conscripted to hard labor by the military junta or punished for speaking out for democracy. All the while, trucks are laden to the point of tipping with teak and zoom racously toward ports for trade with China, and gem stones of rich colors abound in government-approved shops. And the people of Myanmar will see nothing from this commerce and profit; it all goes directly into the coffers of the secretive junta and corrupt officials. Yet their genuine smiles abound and we felt more like foreign exchange students than independent travelers. I'm not sure how they manage to live with joy while so un-supported by their government, but I guess that potent mystery is what made Myanmar so marvelous.

The question that now lingers for us is this: despite the ruling party, should the Golden Arches be allowed by the UN and Western World to reside next to those glittering gold pagodas...should the embargoes be eliminated? Andy and I believe yes...passionately, emphatically and pragmatically. Today most all of the Western (democratic) world chooses to punish the government of Myanmar and goad it into change and evolution by cutting off trade, but China, Japan, Russia and India are profiting on the down-low, plus have communication channels of a sort with SPDC. The black market has all but disappeared since these Superpowers, who are voraciously seeking solutions to their energy needs, have side-stepped the embargoes. Right or wrong, it doesn't matter, realism is important -- the Chinese Yuan is now the currency of choice in Northern Myanmar -- and these country's self-interests are succeeding over any trade restrictions and 'un-favored nation' status. This helps the people of Myanmar in the short term, but we don't think becoming a natural resource pawn and provider for China, India or Russia is an answer with hope and possibility. Getting Myanmar a literal taste of what the world has to offer, especially the Western world, and allowing the people to communicate with the other citizens of the world first-hand seems like the only way to inspire and support them so that some day soon, they're empowered to rise up and fight for the changes they deserve without fears of isolation and setback.