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]

Morocco, Part IV: an ancient curse, the dark side of Marrakech and the magic of street food

[Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III]

When we last left our intrepid traveller, she had been deposited at the busy end of the Fna, desperately in need of the loo (and a shower), an hour late and quite eager to meet her co-adventurer back at the riad…

Jemaa el Fna at night

Truth be told, I navigate better by gut than by map, so after a quick pit stop at the nearest café (NB: it is a fact that in any ladies’ room on the planet, it will always be occupied by someone having a vivid argument on her mobile, and the intensity of the conversation will be in direct proportion to how badly you need to pee), I trust my instincts (and cheat with Google Maps only once) to guide me back to the riad. Briefly revelling in my triumph, I arrive with barely half an hour to spare before C appears. Our reunions are always nice, as was the tagine dinner and Fna-gazing from the rooftop. It’s a different world up there; the din of the music and the drums and the crowds are near-silent within the walls of the riad.


Explorers-ho!

The mission for the weekend is to explore the souks and The Medina. I hadn’t ventured too far my first afternoon, and by the next morning I was excited to see the sights. With company, I figured, it wouldn’t be as daunting. I must report that the bazaars I’ve been to in India and in Istanbul pale in comparison to the ferocity with which the souks here in Marrakech do their souking. Hundreds, non, milliers, of stalls fan out from the Jemaa el Fna square in semi-organised lanes, lined floor to ceiling with wares, some sections carry general themes: cuir, olives, cuivre, vêtements, textiles, lampes, épices… The rest of the stalls, piled high with pottery and scarves and shoes and crafts and rugs and…I’m confident that one could find literally anything here.

By this point we’ve spent some time haggling for trinkets, and I’m beginning to get my sea legs back – in French! We’ve spent an hour or more in a gorgeous lamp shop, genially negotiating, finding C the one thing (actually, three) he’s wanted to get here: some filigreed copper lamps, and I’ve even chosen one for myself as well. We’re feeling accomplished but hungry, maybe a little haggle-weary, and on our way back through the chaos we run into the super-nice Puerto Rican couple from my jaunt in the desert. We’ve decided to have lunch together in a café overlooking the square, so we’re en route when we’re accosted by a very insistent woman, babbling in nursery rhymes, keen on hennaing me. She’s not as keen on C’s brush off and looks him squarely in the eye as she invokes the ancient and potent Berber curse. Every hair in C’s scrappy beard stands on end as she says, finger pointed in warning: Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he? It’s clearly lunchtime.

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Jemaa el Fna at lunchtime on a Friday, just before the afternoon Adhan

The Adhan, or call to prayer, sounds haunting from above – 3 minarets broadcast the muzzeins’ calls in unison, lunchtime din mixes with the prayers.

Running amok…

After depositing our souk winnings and a siesta, we embark on the next check-box for the day: completion of C’s RunStreak. You see, he’s an ultramarathoner in recovery from a frustrating injury so he’s challenged himself to a 20 minute (and >1.6 km) run each day for the month. I’m an incidental beneficiary (??) of the challenge. And so we set out this afternoon, not entirely sure how it will play out – even with all the European influnce here it is still a very conservative Muslim country. I’ve covered myself head to toe; but still, in running tights and a long-sleeved/hooded sweatshirt, I feel a bit exposed in this place where the sight of a woman’s legs sans frock is near blasphemy. We run through the Fna square and across to Koutubia mosque, with its orange trees ripe for picking. It goes okay, I haven’t gotten berated or stoned, so I’m feeling a little better about the next day’s plan for an even longer run in these streets.

Street food for dinner in the largest open-air cafeteria on the planet

If rigid ideology is what divides us, food is what unites. Jemaa el Fna is a mélange of sound, smoke and smell; an open-air cafeteria for all the senses. There are the food hawkers of course, but also the drumming and other instruments (the gimbri or the oud, Moroccan versions of the lute), the insistent clapping of the two-sided Moroccan maracas; there’s a resonance of flutes in the air…not to mention the snake charmers and storytellers and singers, all swirling their words, in Arabic and Tamazight and French, with the smoke from the cooking fires. The smell is something I’ll always remember as warm and spicy and rustic and elemental.

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In the evening, the stalls go up: dozens of pop up restaurants selling variations on a theme, organised into rows of similar foodstuffs. One row is snails, one row soups, one row meats, one row kebabs, one row desserts. We choose a stall on faith – they’re numbered, and representatives from each stall go out into the crowd to entice hungry-looking wide-eyed lingerers to their tables. It’s an amazing visual, a well-choreographed nightly ritual.

Our first experiment is snails. We’re served a small bowl of the critters from a giant steaming pot, and use toothpicks to pluck them out. They’re a thinner, more peppery version of escargot, sans the butter and garlic. So they’re nothing like escargot at all really, but I’m glad to have tried them.

Bread is a staple at every meal. And mint tea. I order olives and Moroccan salad (something like ceviche without the fish); C orders an entire lamb’s head (because, of course you do) and has way more food than he can possibly eat, so we share an entire plate of meat, plus some of the bread, with the sweet, chatty family sitting next to us; they’re clearly grateful that we’ve shared our dinner.

Dessert is a thick tea; a ginger, anise and cinnamony mix of spices (there does not seem to be any actual tea in the tea), served from massive copper urns, accompanied by dense, crumbly cake that is something of a cross between halvah and gingerbread. I think I could stand here at this stall for an hour, sipping this luxurious tea and watching the Fna go by. Grand total for dinner: 150 dirhams; approx. 15€.


We’re quite good at getting lost together, C and I, but usually it’s in a forest or on a mountain, not on the narrow alleyways of an ancient city. We’d stumbled around The Medina that morning, deeper into the souk streets, finding the old slave market that now houses olives and textiles; exploring old caravanserais (fondouqs), old lodging houses for traders on the caravan routes – the bottom floors wide open to accommodate camels, the rooms on the upper floors for travellers. Only 140 of these fondouqs remain in The Medina; they’re gorgeous old buildings now home to artisan workshops.

We wandered until we found ourselves near the tannery, where, before we knew it, we were being handed Berber gas masks (sprigs of mint) against the smell, and guided into the lieu. There are two tanneries, we’re told: the Arabic one, where they use machines and chemicals to cure the hides (typically cow), and the Berber one, where they use natural ingredients (including “pigeon poo”) to prepare the leather (the more durable camel, and also goat). It’s more fascinating than stinky, and for that fact alone I’m grateful it’s not 10° warmer. And I’m not surprised as we’re then guided into a shop to haggle for more goods (I score a pair of handmade leather shoes) before meandering back out into the maze.

It’s here that we become frustratingly lost and ask directions – we’re aware of the scams so we ask to be pointed the way back. This was the diciest moment of the trip: the guy who initially pointed out the directions began to lead; the streets grew quieter and we were lead into an empty courtyard where he pointed to a minaret (not the one we were looking for, I realised) and demanded money to lead us to it. We said no (again) and began to walk back the way we came. Just then, 3 or 4 of his friends appear from out of nowhere. There are no other people around and we are surrounded by these guys in a really narrow alley, demanding to be paid for their, erm, services. I don’t think I had time to be afraid because when I saw how angry C was, the don’t fuck with me look in his eyes said all the guys needed to know. They backed off just moments before it could have come to ugly blows.

Crisis averted, Google maps gets us to more familiar territory, and we let the adrenaline die down over a fantastic rooftop lunch. It’s times like this I think of that Charles Schulz quote, “In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.” We toast, with mint tea, to this very moment in time.

Rooftop lunch at Bazaar Cafe

The afternoon is more wandering, more haggling (argan oil and scarves), more running – this time through the magnificent Cyberparc Arsat Moulay Abdessalam, its manicured gardens and meandering paths a striking contrast to the din of the souks. And finally, after the long day, dinner redux at Jemaa el Fna.

Because food is half the adventure of travel, we first try soup from one place (the ubiquitous harira, which I’ll try to replicate when I get home), then seek out some other vittles for the main course. “Number 55 is stinky food,” we’re told by a guy representing a virtually empty stall. We choose number 55, of course, as it is packed with many more locals than tourists – always a good sign.

The lamb tangia is cooked in earthen pots over an open fire. We’re seated at a long table with sheets of paper for mats, Berber bread plunked down in the middle, Berber whiskey (mint tea) served alongside the meal. Next to us sits a family of 3, excitedly awaiting their dinner. It is served with fanfare, and we watch in equal anticipation as the waiter unfurls the dish. The meal, barely enough for two, is placed in front of the family. But before they begin, we are offered the first taste with a warm gesture.

We’re enjoying the food (C’s got the tangia; mine is a really good roast veggie plate), revelling in the gregariousness and absurd hospitality of the cooks/waiters, welcoming the kindness of strangers. We share bread, we share our meals, we eat in the din of the night amongst thousands of strangers. This is nice, I think…What is it that we’re doing wrong in the West, when welcoming foreigners is discouraged, as if we’d lose something of ourselves if we were to gain new perspective or new friends. It pains me that if the tables were on this soil, this scene wouldn’t likely have played out.

 


We wake the next morning and it’s already time to go. A quick riad brekkie and C is off to the races, almost literally, as the Marrakech Marathon has snarled traffic and, ironically, he has to walk part-way to the airport. I get a few hours more, the first part of which I spend drinking mint tea in a sunny café in the quiet of the morning Fna, watching the day (and the vendors) unpack. I had wanted to see the photography museum, but after our ordeal in that general vicinity yesterday I decide I’d better not get lost with just hours before my flight. Instead, I set a goal of getting the most for the last dirhams in my pocket and venture back into the souks. And I feel pretty good, parting with my last 100 dirham bill and some coins in exchange for some hand-painted bowls. I feel an even more an accomplished haggler when the shopkeeper, laughing, calls me a Berber. For that I take back a one-dirham coin (roughly 10 cents) from the pile I’d placed in his hand and say, jokingly, pour un souvenir, and leave the shop with both of us still laughing.

The ride to the airport was uneventful, and it was on the walk to the car that I realised we were lost the day before mere blocks from the riad. Oh, the labyrinthine rues of Marrakech…The sounds and the smells and the sights of a whirlwind week in Morocco fill my head as I check in and board my flight.

One last stop: Germany. A quick stopover in Munich on a lovely day gives me just enough time to see the Marienplatz glockenspiel do its thing from the 91-metre high Alter Peter. Then it’s Westward-ho into Boston’s late-January chill, where the fernweh takes hold and gets the wheels spinning for the next adventure.

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In case you missed these: [Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III] and read C’s account here. Cheers!