Southeast Asia, Part IV: Entering Myanmar Proper

I’ve connected with a friend-of-a-friend who is a certified tour guide in Myanmar. She’s going to show me as much of the city as we (read: I) can absorb in 24 hours, before I continue on to Inle Lake and Bagan. There are 3 imperatives on the list: 19th Street (Chinatown), Shwedagon Pagoda for sunrise, and the Rangoon Tea House.

The taxi drops a nitrogen-weary mermaid at her hotel in Yangon, and it’s like night-and-day to the Bates-esque experience of the previous night. I check into the Yuzana Garden Hotel (which I’ve booked online for maybe $5 more than what I’ve just paid in Kawthaung) and feel like I’m walking into a renovated palace with its 15-foot ceilings and wood and marble finishes.

N.B. For this trip, my hotels average ~$25USD per night, and this one (very much in the price range, thanks to Agoda) is by far the snazziest!

After getting settled, we head out on foot to wander the streets of Yangon, not aimlessly, but since it’s later than anticipated, the anticipated market is closing for the evening so we walk past one of the city’s “Christmas in Yangon” stages that have been set up for tonight’s celebrations.

I say a private Happy Birthday Dad and we walk on, then jump in a cab and arrive in Chinatown for a beer and Yangonese BBQ on 19th Street, which, I’m told, has become one of the only decent places for young people to hang out together in this city. And so it seems: the street is bustling, as millennials (plus only a v small smattering of tourists) line the restaurants, drinking beer served up by the beer girls from Myanmar and Chang, and chatting up a storm over BBQ. You fill a basket with skewers of every imaginable thing, from chicken feet to quail eggs, squid to sausages, and hand the basket to the BBQ guy who sends it to the kitchen to cook, and the meal is delivered to your table with rice and a fantastic dipping sauce.

We don’t have much of an agenda tonight so we wander the streets of Chinatown and beyond, eventually making it back to the area where Christmas is in full swing, and we arrive at the same stage we were at earlier to catch local renditions of Feliz Navidad and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Is he? I wonder… We’ve been talking tonight of the monumental changes taking place in this country since the Regime was ousted only 3 years ago. It’s like a new lease on life for many of these young people here, and the significance that we’re on the street after 9pm watching a modern-clad local songstress belting out Western Christmas music is not lost on anyone in the massive crowd, myself included.

Next morning, we head out before dawn to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Myanmar, and as such attracts devotees and tourists from across the globe. We arrive well before 6am, and while there are no tourists here at this dark hour, there are streams of worshippers at every possible corner of the place.

There are no words that can describe it here: the air smells of jasmine and incense and wood smoke. My ears are buzzing with the sounds of chanting and individual mantras, all in languages I cannot decipher, but that join together in a soundscape that melds with the nag champa. The rising sun turns the mesmerising 100 metre-tall gold leafed stupa first pink, then a vibrant, lustrous gold that seems to drink in the morning’s rays.

It’s said that 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha are encased in this stupa, archaeologists estimating that it was erected c. the 7th century, though legend says it was built 2000 years before that. And while I’m not a practising Buddhist, one cannot help but be drawn into the story and embraced by the surroundings here.

As we exit the temple, a market of sorts is set up, selling materials for prayer offerings and myriad other goods from refrigerator magnets to local handicrafts to idols. What gives me pause is the wicker cage full of songbirds that are on offer: you purchase one in order to set it free, symbolic of releasing one’s attachments and so forth. It hurts my head and heart to think about the contradictions. And my guide agrees with my disdain: they’ve found a way to usurp the teachings for their own profit. Prophets, they are not…and my skepticism of organised religion continues.

We continue on to brekkie, more wandering, a ride on the railway, the bus, and a local ferry across the Yangon River to Dalah, just to make sure we’ve hit all modes of transport here. We visit another pagoda and admire their reclining Buddha, its soles telling Gautama’s horoscope. And of course, lunch at the Rangoon Tea Shop, rounding out the musts for the visit here.

My impression? There’s not a lot to do in Yangon, but Shwedagon is literally awe-some. The food is excellent, and I note the Indian, Chinese and Western influences in nearly everything we’ve managed to inhale these past 24 hours. I find it amusing that at every meal so far I’ve been asked, you can eat spicy food? or told, very concerned, that’s spicy. Yes, I reply, donning my chopsticks and smiling.

Bonus: I’ve also managed to find custard apples, an Asian fruit I’ve only ever seen before in India. Now, onwards to the next (next) part of the journey that begins with an unexpected jolt.


Inle: They say what doesn’t kill you makes for a good story after-the-fact, right? Just so, because as I was worried about flying Myanmar National Airlines, I was not worried at all about the taxi I’d take from little Heho airport to Inle.

The air here is fresher than Yangon, and a smoky evening mist is settling. I get in the mini-van and we start driving down the steep 2-lane road that winds up and over the small mountains that surround Inle Lake. The views are stunning in the waning light. About 15 minutes in, my driver starts slowing down and veering towards the edge of the road. There’s a nice scenic overlook where others are stopped, so I think he’s slowing to give me a photo opp.

Problem is, he doesn’t stop.

Before I can figure out what just happened, we’ve crashed into the white and red safety pylon thing that separates us from the 100+ metre drop-off, which at this point is directly in front of the vehicle. The driver has either passed out or fallen asleep at the wheel, and the jolt wakes him enough to look back at me with these hauntingly glassy eyes (and for me to ask are you okay?). I think I’m in a bit of shock, because it takes a moment before I realise I must get out and get help. Immediately.

My mind is racing but I am not moving. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if we were going any faster. It’s almost sunset. I’m in Burma. The absolute only place I know I DO NOT WANT TO GO on this trip is a Burmese hospital. Will the post hold? I just read a book about the opium trade. I wonder if he’s on opium. Get. Out. Of. The. Van.

I drag myself out of my own head and get out of the vehicle.

The post is holding back the van; it’s bent over, and the vehicle does not look good: there is a massive dent in the front bumper in which the post is now embedded. Time feels somehow warped, slow but too fast, and as I put my hand out to flag down a passing taxi, he is already pulled over. He gets out, checks the car, checks the guy, points to his cab and says, Get in. Get in now.

It takes me a moment to remember to grab my bag from the back, but we get it loaded and there is a very nice and very concerned older Swiss couple in the back seat. Glad to be safe, we continue onward and the taxi driver calls the authorities.

Shaken, but not deterred, I profusely thank the driver and the lovely Swiss duo for rescuing me and getting me to my hotel in one piece. Still, part of my brain is also wondering what to do about the glassy-eyed driver.

The rest of the evening goes better: this hotel is lovely, and a hanging garden full of orchids and greenery lines the pathway to my room.

Armed only with a guidebook and a hotel reservation (and Burmese fisherman’s pants), I know how to say hello and thank you, and I’ve got no idea what to do first here, but this is my launch pad for the next few days as I explore the famed Inle Lake.

I silently wish my co-adventuring Calvin were here to continue the journey with me. I make a cup of tea and try to shake off the recent events and doubts.


Demain est un autre jour…the lake awaits.


Read more: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part V]

Sardegna: ultima parte

[prima parte]   [seconda parte]   [terza parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

Final notes, in which we learn lessons on what to pack, proper hiking footwear and tourist attractions to perhaps avoid. Holiday ends on a high note, as much adrenaline as spirits.

Summit summited, the next day we venture out to ride mountain bikes to a secluded beach, attainable only via boat or trail, Cala Sisine. We rent bikes from the local shop (I’m giddy with excitement to have been loaned a gorgeous carbon fiber Giant that I find out is the owner’s personal ride), and I’ve brought my bike shoes from home. I’ve not been off-road on a mountain bike in ages, but as they say, it’s just like riding a bike…

map_territorio_2_big

Internet photo © www.antoniofancello.it

We park at what we deem a good starting point, 10 or so km from the beach. It’s crumbly, tractionless fire road and though not that technical, it’s hard going because you have to pay keen attention to the rocks and the ruts, as the ground shifts under your tires. We’re not 3km in, and the (elephant-headed?) gods of cosmic mischief are clearly not done with us: C’s chain breaks as we get to the top of a gnarly hill. Luckily we’ve landed in front of a compound of sorts, and the owner is at home. Less luckily, he only speaks Sard (closest to Latin, they say). Through pantomime and greasy-fingered hand gestures, we determine that his tools will not help the situation, nor will the chain tool I left at home, back in the US (because of course they’ll have one at the bike shop in Sardinia and why do I need to pack that?). So it’s a limp back to the car and back to the bike shop for repairs. We acquire a chain tool (that of course we won’t need now that we have it), just in case. After a calculated stop for grilled squid for lunch, we set out to finish what we’ve started.

Consulting Google Maps (2nd mishap of the day if one is keeping track), we are directed to Golgo the restaurant, instead of Golgo the trailhead (which, we were to later find out is 17km down the road). But we don’t know that we’re in the wrong spot until we bike down to the semi-crowded parking lot for Cala Goloritzè (see map above: exchanging looks of “how did we arrive here?”) and see that a) we’ve arrived where we didn’t expect and b) it’s clearly a trekking trail. Bikes are locked in the car, and – even though today was not supposed to be a hiking day – we decide to hike the 3km (yeah, right!) down to this famous landmark.

Aside: I am wearing my mountain bike shoes, and the only other shoes in my bag are flip flops. These are trail-hardy shoes with old but decent cleats. I decide that the Sidis will be a better choice than the flip flops.

I send C ahead, as he is better equipped for the trail in his running shoes (I’m also sure he’s needing to vent some of the pent-up frustration in the day’s mishaps thus far), and it takes me at least an hour and a half to reach the beach. By which time, I have slipped, stumbled and sure I’ve nearly died no less than 6 times. When I get there I realise that the soles of my Sidis have been chewed away by the carnivorous volcanic rock, and as such I’ve essentially been walking down a treacherous loose, rocky trail on plastic and metal. Trail teaching of the day: do not hike in MTB shoes.

I’m hot, tired and grumpy when I (AT LAST!) reach the beach (and my warmly smiling companion; or maybe he’s just feeling sorry for me…). There are too many tourists here, I decide, even though this is one of the iconic Sardinian sites to see and it’s not particularly unexpected. The water soon washes away my mood and we swim out towards the famed arch of Cala Goloritzè.

The slog back up from sea level is surprisingly easier, even in flip flops. Trail lesson #2: don’t hike in flip flops either. Adventure points earned (total of 10km MTB, 8+km unexpected and footwear-impaired hiking, seeing iconic sights), smiles return, gorgeous Sardinian seafood for dinner and all is well in the world (or at least, for now, in our little corner of it).


Un ultimo giorno…

On the last day of adventuring, we are determined to a) not find mishap (or let it find us) and b) find Cala Sisine.

20160924_100947Bikes, check. Tools, check. Maps, check(ed!). Today is mountain biking for real. We drive the winding mountain road to our starting point; a desolate spot where, though there are trail signs, there are no signs of other adventurers. We’re not sure whether or not this is a good sign.

The trails are wide fire roads. It’s crumbly, tricky and windy doubletrack with rock crunching under our tires and jaw-dropping rock formations on each side. The landscape reminds me of the American West as much as it does Kauai, but the slight hint of salt in the pristine air and the almost-metallic sound of the volcanic rock under our tires reminds me that we’re somewhere otherworldly. This is possibly the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever ridden and with each turn is another photo opp, though the photos cannot do it justice. Each climb is rewarded with a tricky downhill, and the kilometers roll away as we reach the spiaggia. Riding a bike always makes me feel like a kid again, no matter if it’s down the block or down a gorgeous trail in a foreign land. We arrive at Cala Sisine, giant smiles on our faces, and are rewarded with pristine, virtually empty beach. One or two boats moored offshore, and a guy climbing a cliff with a selfie stick, preparing to jump. Gah!

We arrive, glad to have no mishaps to recount, and loll on the beach, swim in the bright blue sea and find ourselves the only ones here for the better part of an hour. Bliss, until a tourist boat arrives to deposit its load… and at that it’s our cue to make the trip back. C humming Indiana Jones music as we maneuver the Baunei backroads, wishing we had a 4×4 instead of the rental Fiat (fully-insured except for the tires…we needed to be a little careful, as Ganesh has yet to rear his elephant’s head today).

There was bistecca di cavallo on the menu at dinner (where it remained, at least at our table). Calamari, spaghetti vongole and pulpo on the plates. Red Sardinian wine in the glasses. Adventure Points earned today, then redeemed for a final gelato at dessert.

20160924_122437

I’m going to mix metaphors or something here by introducing the Sanskrit word sri (shree). It means simple, radiant, natural beauty. And for all the obstacles tossed, rolled, flung in our paths this week, the thing that sparkled high and mighty above all was the infinite beauty, the sri, of this place. From the bluest blues of the Mediterranean Sea to the imposing peaks of the Sardinian mountains, graceful and strong as they contrast against the azure blue sky.

img-20160925-wa0004

View of Pedra Longa and one of my favourite photos of the trip

A final limoncello toast this night to birthdays, overcoming obstacles, laughing at mishaps, getting lost, finding the way, sore muscles (and Sardinian mussels), grilled calamari, local cheese, pane carasau, gelato in excess, musical goats, gorgeous panoramas (and gorges), the magical Med and future adventures…

[prima parte]   [seconda parte]   [terza parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

 

#lessstuffmorehumanity

image

Gus is an almost 12-yr old German Shorthaired Pointer, who teaches me something every day (for the long version, read this ). This week, he’s been spreading holiday cheer by just being his doofy Gus self: hauling around sticks bigger than his head, stalking squirrels and cosying up to me on the dark chilly nights here in New England.

G-dog is oblivious to the Paris attacks, downed planes, level-4 terror threats, rampant domestic terrorism and the ugly xenophobia that is percolating and bubbling close to the surface here in the US. He’s blind to the infectious “want” that pervades at this time of year and is overjoyed equally at the prospect of an extra dog treat, a long walk in the woods or a giant smelly pile of something rancid (to roll or not to roll, that is the question).

While I’ve always been wary of the thing-filled culture that has evolved, each year I find myself more and more polarized and foreign-feeling here, on my own turf, in my own skin. There is that “I just got the greatest deal on the planet” endorphin rush that puts one in the buying (erm, holiday…) spirit. And there is that “I just made my friend some homemade herbal tea and sent it via airmail” feeling that warms much deeper and lasts longer than a quick chemical high. Each year, I gravitate more towards the things and actions that make people feel good vs. the stuff that fills an immediate want. Sometimes I’m paralysed by the options available.

It’s an anxious time, a somewhat precarious time and a wholly uneasy world to live in… and, bonus: we’re heading into what’s supposed to be a happy, carefree, joy- and wonder-filled season. I, for one, would like to hide under the bed until the dust settles. But that’s just me.

I can’t confess to a completely purchase-free season, however I make these assertions and pledge a new hashtag #lessstuffmorehumanity

  • New traditions make indelible memories; a pile of “wants” are quickly forgotten
  • Some of the best gifts are smiles, songs and handwritten notes (even better are ones hand-delivered)
  • Take photographs, create memories, leave pieces of your heart, make friends…
  • Share meals and stories with those around you
  • Find similarities in others instead of differences
  • Do what you can, from your heart, and it will be more meaningful than a giant thing which will take months to pay off
  • Even the most meager gift has intrinsically more value when it is accompanied by the story of its origin
  • Indulge in experiences, skimp on excess, hatch new plans

As I just texted a friend, “I’m trying to start a revolution, want to help?”

#lessstuffmorehumanity

Oh, and happy holidays.