A wall, a missed connection, and a dark past (aka, escaping reality: part III)

Throughout Germany, and many other countries in Europe, there are small brass cobblestones marking the threshold of homes and businesses. Stumbling stones, they’re called. Stolpersteine. Here lived… Here worked… a soul whose days were cut short. I had read about these stones but hadn’t seen any until one morning I (almost literally) stumbled across some at Rungestraße 5, two families’ plights in the stones at my feet.

Here lived Günter, Leo and Ella Brauner…murdered in Auschwitz. Here Lived the Abrahamsohns: Grete…escaped and resettled; David…deported, murdered in Theresienstadt; Walter…escaped, caught, deported, murdered in Auschwitz; Rudolf…Escaped, ran, hid, ran again, resettled.

Stumbling stones at Rungestraße 5

I spent a week in Berlin, walking kms and kms (>50km if add up all the daily steps) seeing where history (and infamy) were made, where brave hearts broke, and where madmen walked. I am here as an experiment in working remotely, so I walked when I wasn’t working, trying to take in as much of the city as I could, in-between time zones, before and after Teams meetings.

I can’t say I fell in love with the city. In fact, a small part of me detested it. But the other part of me started to consider the great lengths this city, this country, has taken not to bury its past, but to exhibit its ugliness in full view and make policy to make certain the atrocities that led to and pervaded during the Nazi rule don’t ever happen again here. Coming from a place whose brief history has been so whitewashed, this approach is morbidly refreshing.

I visited the requisite monuments: Brandenberg Gate, where black and white photos of Nazi parades dance in your head as you gaze in half-awe/half-disgust. Checkpoint Charlie, a now innocuous-looking guardhouse that once made or broke the lives of German citizens, and now commemorates not only the former divide between East and West Berlin, but is a symbol of the different levels of conflict wrapped up in that madness.

I saw the Berliner Dom, the imposing cathedral that looms large on the edge of the Spree. I walked around the hulk of the Reichstag building and I wandered around World Heritage Site, Museumisinsel, gaping at the brilliant architecture of the museum buildings, tucked amongst the modern and brutalist mayhem that is modern-day Berlin. I don’t know what I expected architecture-wise, but since most of Berlin was bombed to smithereens during WWII, there really is no old city left. What emerged from the rubble was spartan at best, gray on even a brilliant summer’s day. I made efforts to find interesting buildings and bridges and monuments each time I set out on foot.

I saw the East Side Gallery, its vivid and evocative murals adorning some of the last intact sections of the Wall. There was the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum of sorts, bringing the timeline of the Reich and its downfall into the daylight.

I saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (aka, the Holocaust Memorial), a strange visit because I was expecting a solemn place, where one could get lost in sadness for those lost lives. Instead, it was a microcosm of chaos, small children running and shouting amongst the columns, the reverberating chatter making me anxious and uncomfortable. Or was it just the place?

Between the historical sites and the city-cum-history lesson were a smattering of parks, and one of the biggest surprises was the Volkspark Friedrichschain, where fountains and monuments and ponds and even a manmade waterfall in an Asian garden make you feel like you’ve stepped out of the grayness of the city for a while. There is art everywhere here, murals and sculptures and brightly-graffiti’d entryways, flashing light into the stone.

The constant reminder that these are not normal times was in the air: the friend I had gone to Berlin to see in the first place ended up being sent to the dungeons of quarantine due to a COVID exposure at work and we missed our opportunity to meet. Par for the course in these strange days…we vowed to meet again soon.

I left Berlin on a DB train, heading towards a stay with another friend and perhaps some greener pastures. The severity and starkness of the city clung to me as I sat on the train and thought about how I’d describe Berlin. It is an imposing city, both in history and in stature. It’s immense and sprawling, a wide city, interconnected with trams and metros and buses, Mitte being the middle of a multi-spoked carriage wheel whose trajectory might have been thrown off a bit by all the cobbles. I’m not a city mouse, I found myself thinking as the train headed south and east, one of its passengers trying to shake the grayness and correlate that with the visceral pulse of the city: there was street music everywhere, a bass-y urban thrum that gave the wide avenues a lifeline. I stumbled across a pot parade which turned into a rave in a park near Alexaderplatz. Electric scooters zoomed down every street. Art. Graffiti. Gelato. For me, the evening lights of the old domes reflecting in the river were one highlight. And I had some fantastic falafel. And I learnt that you must confront, then learn from, your history if you are to move on.


And onward we go… to where the journey caught an unexpected thermal in the ethers and went from a sojourn to a much more substantial experience.

On windmills and cheese: A trepidatious foray back into the world.

579 days ago I stepped off a flight from Burma, via Thailand, through Hong Kong, and into a new world order. In that many days, I have spent face-to-face time with fewer people than I have digits on my left hand. This morning was the first meal I have eaten indoors, in a restaurant, in 18 months.

Anxiety, social awkwardness, uncertainty, stranger-danger, general uneasiness… all feelings that have been percolating these last months. And with that also brewing was a weird claustrophobia, leaving me feeling stranded on some desert island. Sans desert…or palm trees…or anything remotely resembling bright blue seas.

So about a month ago, when the EU opened its gates to blue passport holders with that magic little card, I felt like I was holding not a vaccination certificate, but something of a golden ticket. I found myself clicking “purchase” on a round-trip flight to Amsterdam with a long window of unknown in the middle.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting in a hotel in a little city just north of A’dam, having spent the afternoon amongst canals lined with storybook architecture and meticulously cobbled streets, marshy canals teeming with European waterfoul, and centuries-old windmills looking, even in their retirement, as impressive as the day they were commissioned.

Alkmaar windmill. Yes, this is real.

Welcome to Amsterdam.

I’ll back up a few days to Sunday morning, when I landed in Amsterdam, met a friend at my hotel, and began a whirlwind couple of days traipsing back and forth across the city. Me: masked; the rest of A’dam: much less-so!

My first impression is that travel has changed not least because there are more things to worry about: standing too close to someone in a queue; whether there is outdoor seating at a restaurant; putting on a mask, taking it off, putting it on again, then wondering if it’s ever okay to maybe not wear a mask for a bit; Borders! Did I fill out the right entry form? Can I even enter, or have the rules changed again? It is quite honestly a little stressful. And so I’ve arrived on the other side of the proverbial pond, but have arrived also quite apprehensive. I’m feeling a bit shell-shocked by the amount of “outness” in more than a year and a half. We introverts were able to spend this time mega-introverting…this is hard. And a bit weird. And I’m not entirely sure I want to go back to the old verison of normal.

That said, the architecture is lovely, and I managed to also try many of the local delicacies on offer: stroopwafel, frietjes, and broodje haring. Note: unlike the stroopwafel, broodje haring is definitely a subjective taste: it’s salt-cured herring with pickles and onions on bread, like a cross between pickled herring and a oniony, jello sandwich. Or something. I gave it a thumbs-up! Ditto to the fresh stroop wafels, hand-made using the secret family recipe!

Onwards. Holland, Part II: Windmills and cheese.

Did I mention the trains? Coming from Boston where the T works when it feels like working, and the Commuter Rail takes one far enough as to be only semi-convenient, the trains in Holland are like magic. Take Dutch perfectionism and overlay that onto a web of trains and trams and metro lines, sprinkle in speed and cleanliness, and one gets from point A to point B quickly, conveniently and hassle-free.

As such, it took about 1/2 an hour to go roughly 40km, and like that I was literally transported to that little city north of A’dam: Alkmaar for Part II of my Holland experience: Windmills and cheese.

My first day in Alkmaar was a train ride and a wander about the town, where I stumbled upon a busy-ish main shopping street (bleh) and a load of tourists (no masks: bleh x2), and a local park where I found a windmill and some very strange outdoor art (flanked by a sign in Dutch that read pas op loslopende mensen” which loosely translates to “watch out for stray people” – this, I found amusing!). I went to bed that first night a little disappointed and wondering where had all the windmills gone? (and maybe a little about the stray people)

So it was to my very pleasant surprise the next morning, when I got into a conversation with a local college student out walking her dog, and she offered to show me her city. We ended up at a nature reserve on the other side of town (that I’d never have found on my own!) where there are 4 intact-but-dormant windmills. I learnt that the town had a castle in medieval times, and although the town sat higher than some of its surrounding area, these windmills (there were originally 6) helped ensure that the water flowed away from the castle and the town. From there we looked at the Grote Kerk (literally, big church; more formally Grote Sint-Laurenskerk), wandered about some more, and found possibly the best cheese shop I’ve ever been in.

Windmills and cheese, sorted.

A simple conversation with a stranger led to a serendipitous afternoon and a mini-adventure I’d never have known about otherwise. These are the things I’ve missed during lockdown: small kindnesses, chance encounters, simple but new experiences, cultural connection, situational spontaneity, small wonders with old (and new) friends…


And, so, the short sojourn in Holland ended with my getting on another train… this one to Antwerp for the next leg of the journey: Adventures in Belgium: Castles and forests.

An introvert’s guide to solo travel: 5 rules to a successful adventure

I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!

There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.

It begins like this…

I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.

I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.

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Southeast Asia, Part VI: Bagan, a Sea of Ancient Relics

I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.

And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.

I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.

Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.

Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.

My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!

I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.

Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.

I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.

The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.

I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).

I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.

My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.

It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).

Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!

I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.

This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.

In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.

I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.


Read More: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV] [Part V]

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]