Southeast Asia, Part III: (re-)Entry to the Society of Land-Dwellers

Culture shock again, as I step off the boat and the guy tells me wait here. As if I have a choice… someone in the vicinity has my passport, and in it, the stamp that will allow me to roam freely in this rustic place. Rustic isn’t necessarily the first word that pops into my head as I look around, the buzz of this port of entry, with its tuk tuk and scooter beeping all around, street food vendors everywhere I look, and what appears to be pagodas and stupas on the hills in all directions.

I’m on a dock, in something like no-man’s (or woman’s) land, an immigration office to my right and the boat on which I’ve arrived still at the dock, my fellow divers waiting for their exit stamps. It’s like a miniature version of Bangkok, or perhaps what it looked like before the westernization and mass build-up happened there. The gilded arches are impressive for this place, reminding me a little of Jaipur in its buzzing frenzy.

Major observation #2: I am wearing the wrong shorts. Having just landed from a week of wearing not much more than a bikini and/or wetsuit, I have put on a pair of normal (read: Western) shorts for the transfer. As I look around, I recall the conversation I had prior to leaving Bangkok about what (not) to wear in Burma. I have forgotten to put on one of the pairs of Burmese fisherman pants I’ve been given for this leg of the adventure. And now I appear to be the only westerner in this town, standing on the dock with my luggage, no passport, and in the wrong shorts.

The guy comes back, my passport in hand, loads me onto a tuk tuk and sends us off to my hotel. I know zero Burmese, which does not go in my favour, as I try to pay for my hotel room. They cannot change dollars, nor do they accept credit cards, and I’ve used up most of my Thai Baht. My only option: go to the market and change money.

Note: It is 700 degrees outside (F or C, it really doesn’t matter…this may be the hottest I’ve been. Ever.) and I am still in the wrong shorts because I haven’t gotten into my hotel room because I do not have any money. I walk down the street, find the market and then a bank, but most of the US dollars I have are either folded one too many times, too used, have a small ink mark on them, or are not acceptable for myriad other reasons. I am able to change $70. This will pay for my hotel and get me to Yangon tomorrow. They, too, run off with my passport, but I am finally given 103,000 Myanmar Kyat. And I thought conversion to/from the metric system was complicated math.

I am looking forward to a shower and then a change into clothes in which I can wander about comfortably, for a given value of comfortable. The good news is that the room comes with a bathroom. The not-as-good-news is that it makes the boat shower I’ve just had for the past week look good, which means I’ll do any luxuriating in my Yangon shower once I get there.

So I do. Wander, that is. First, up to the temple I’ve seen from the port, which I find out is Kawthoung’s most impressive landmark, the Pye Taw Aye temple complex, with its gilded hilltop pagoda. From here, I walk down and across town, passing through the market again. I’m stopped by 3 little girls whose mum runs a shop that sells all manner of local wares, and they want to paint my face with the traditional thanaka, a bark of sorts that is used not only for design but for sun protection and medicinal purposes. Face painted (of course I purchased some with my newly-procured local wealth), I march on… receiving smiles and waves from everyone I see along the way. And the next smiling face I see is one of the boatmen, who is having tea with some of his colleagues from his other job. I think I’m beginning to understand this culture a little as I’m invited to sit with them for tea and snacks.

My first real day on land here in Myanmar rounds out with a sunset atop the park that marks the southernmost point in Myanmar.

Tomorrow really begins the next leg of the journey, and with it a trip northward to Yangon.


Read more of these adventures in Southeast Asia: [Part I: Bangkok] [Part II: Diving in the Mergui Archipelago] [Part IV: Yangon] [Part V: Inle Lake]

We’re all immigrants here

NewYorkPassengerLists1820-1957ForTaubaDinaWidra

This is the passenger list of a boat that sailed from Antwerp in December of 1921.

On it were my great-grandmother (my father’s father’s mother), my grandfather and two other great-uncles I never met. From what I’ve been able to gather, Tillie (my great-grandmother) crossed the ocean with the three boys, and apparently followed my great-grandfather here after he was settled (he arrived around 1914). They were Russian and spoke Yiddish. My father’s maternal side of the family came from Palestine, presumably on similar ships, around 1912.

I am a 2nd generation American, granddaughter of immigrants (who were also likely refugees of both a World War and a Revolution), though I can’t pretend to know their stories. They lived in Brooklyn and built decent lives for their families. They came to this country for the opportunities it offered, for the freedom and security it promised and for a way of life they were not able to achieve in their native lands.

This is the story of how our nation was built: ship by ship; immigrants and refugees bringing their stories, skills and entrepreneurial spirits to this “land of the free.”

While the attacks in Paris made me angry and sick and scared – to me, it was an attack on the western freedoms we take for granted, I’m more disheartened by the way my homeland is responding to a larger crisis. While I don’t think we can accommodate every refugee, and I do think we need to weed out the *known* bad guys, the fact that we’re turning our backs and slamming doors on humans facing the same (or likely worse) conditions that our not-so-distant ancestors did is really truly sad.

I was young when she died, but I remember my great-grandmother Tillie. And it was decades later that I found out how she got to this country. I think about that now, the sacrifices and the challenges my ancestors faced in trying to find a better life, in order to give me a privileged and comfortable one. And I think about the even worse sacrifices the current-day refugees and (im)migrants are making…as I wonder how these politicians can look themselves in the mirror each morning when they realise they are metaphorically turning their backs on the great-grandmother Tillies of their own.

We’re all immigrants here, regardless that we came from Europe or Asia or Africa… Maybe we should embrace that and start to act like better humans now.