Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Burma Diaries

I racked my brain to think of an original way to share three weeks of experiences during our time in Myanmar in a cohesive, readable blog post. What I came up with is, in my opinion, neither original nor cohesive. You'll have to be the judge as to whether or not it's readable.

Day 1: We arrive in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, on a rainy, dreary evening. After sloshing around for an hour with our backpacks trying to find a hostel room (the country isn't quite ready for online bookings, seeing as there isn't reliable electricity, let alone internet), we are finally able to drop our bags off and go grab something to eat. As we walk to find a restaurant, we notice people in the street staring at us. We are uncomfortable at first until we notice that the gawkers are smiling and waving at us: they are simply curious and happy to see Westerners. This will be a recurring theme throughout our stay in the country. 

On the way back from dinner, we notice a group of people down a dark side street standing around a huge pot of something cooking over a wood fire. One man stirs the contents of the pot with a giant wooden paddle. Curious, we slow down to watch. The man notices us and immediately waves us over to get a good look and offers me the paddle. As the gathered crowd laughs, I take the paddle and start stirring what turns out to be several kilos of chopped onions. The onlookers crack up to see this white girl happily doing their cooking for them as Vincent snaps photos. They explain to us that the onions are for a curry that they will offer the Buddhist monks the next morning. They ask us where we are from, how long we will stay in Myanmar, and upon realizing that we just arrived, they warmly welcome us to their country. I love these people already.

Day 2: It’s still raining as we walk, again with our bags, to find a better hostel. The one from the night before was apparently entered into a competition for the World’s Grossest Bathroom and we couldn’t leave quickly enough. As we trudge through the rain, wet and miserable, a man approaches Vincent asking if we need help. We assume he is trying to sell us a taxi ride (we did just come from Thailand, remember, where everyone is always trying to sell you something), so we dismiss him with a “no, thank you” and keep walking. 

“Wait!” he says. “Take this!” And he hands Vincent his own umbrella.

Vincent politely refuses, unsure if this is a gift or a sale, but the man is undeterred.

“No, I have many others. Please take!”

He shoves the umbrella into Vincent’s hand and then he is gone.

Day 3: An overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan. It’s still raining and the bus station, which is just an enormous, confusing, open-air maze of stands, is a mud pit. It’s chaos: snack vendors, bus representatives and taxi drivers all yell over each other to sell their services. Eleven year olds try to direct buses around each other while avoiding the mud puddles that threaten to take over the parking area. 

We have a moment’s relief from the madness when we finally get on the bus only to have that crash down around us when the driver turns on the TV, and turns the volume all the way up. It’s a Burmese variety show that consists of five guys yelling at each other and pretending to hit each other over the head with various objects, interspersed with women doing traditional dance routines to music that can only be described as a car accident for the ears. As the sun goes down, the bus’s main lights dim and green moods lamps on the walls turn on. Between the colored lighting, the insane music and the loud volume, we feel like we are trapped in a moving nightclub.

Day 4: We are shaken awake at 3:30am by the bus driver, who is yelling at us, “Bagan! Bagan!” Trying to get our bearings and understand what is going on, we slowly pack up our stuff and stagger off the bus only to be immediately surrounded by taxi drivers asking us where we are going. We finally pick a guy, negotiate a price and follow him out of the parking lot. He leads us, not to a car as we had assumed, but to a horse-drawn buggy harnessed to a skinny pony that the driver introduces as “MoMo.” Next thing I know, I am wedged in the back of a buggy, bumping down a dirt road in the dark to our hostel. 

Did I mention it is 3:30 in the morning? 

Day 5: We hire our buggy driver to take us around Bagan’s famed valley of temples for the day. The valley in Bagan is studded with over 3000 Buddhist temples of different styles and sizes, most built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Many of the individual temples are little more than ruins, but to climb one of the larger, better preserved temples and look out over the vast plain filled with soaring stupas is one of the most awe-inspiring sights imaginable.

Vincent, our driver and Momo

Day 5: We rent bikes and continue to explore Bagan’s less-visited temples. It’s a nice change of pace to be able to avoid the souvenir hawkers that swarm the well-known temples, but we still get approached by random people trying to sell us sand paintings and post cards. Special mention goes to the guy that pulls up on his motor bike next to Vincent as he is pedaling up a hill and tries to convince him to look at some paintings. There are also some kids who try to sell us home-made postcards, which are just children’s drawings of temples. I don’t buy any and now I wish I had.

An adorable little girl who guided me throughout one of the temples
Contemplating a Buddha with a class of kids on a field trip

Day 7: Day bus from Bagan to Mandalay. It’s only supposed to be a six-hour trip, so we aren’t too concerned about comfort. That changes when a bus the size of a small school bus pulls up to the group of around 60 people waiting at the bus station. V and I look at each other, surely all of these people aren’t getting on the same bus?

Oh, but they are.

There are 26 seats in the bus and around 60 people crammed into it, including us, squashed in with baskets of food under our feet and our knees up around our ears. There are three people to a seat, people sitting on plastic stools in the aisles, people sitting on the floor, on each other’s laps, on the roof and even a few hanging out the door. Apparently though, that isn’t enough because the driver stops every 15 minutes or so to take more people. Every time he stops we think, “Ok, this is it, there’s no way more people can fit in here.” And every time, we are wrong.

The packed bus, before they crammed another 15 people in it
We stop in a village for a snack and bathroom break. The bus hasn’t even stopped moving yet when it’s surrounded by a herd of vendors carrying baskets of everything from chips to honey to fried baby birds on their heads, clamoring for a sale through the door and windows of the bus. It is impossible to even get out to go to the bathroom without physically pushing our way through the crowd. It is chaos, a veritable mob of people yelling, waving and vying for space.

Day 8: Day bus from Mandalay to Hsipaw. After the harrowing ordeal of yesterday’s bus, we are apprehensive to get on another one, but the ride is largely uneventful barring the ubiquitous TV playing Burmese music videos with the volume turned all the way up.  

Day 9: We decide to do a day hike from Hsipaw to a little village in the hills. Normally, the hike is done as an overnight trek with a guide, but we heard that you can hike up and then pay a villager to bring you back down on a motor bike. Plus, we’re cheap and don’t want to spring for a guide. We have no map or directions to help us get to the village, but we ask along the way and eventually make our way up. We walk through rice paddies and lush farm land, passing monasteries with tiny novice monks and small isolated villages, where little kids yell out “Hallo!” as we approach and wave to us from the windows of their hut. 

We finally reach the village and are immediately invited by a smiling village woman into her house, where she offers us food and a place to stay for the night. We explain that we can’t stay, but gladly accept her offer of tea. There is another couple of tourists there as well and as we settle in, the woman explains that there will be a big party in the village this evening and that many people from the neighboring villages have come to this one to celebrate. 

As if on cue, an old woman in a brightly colored traditional longyi and head dress peeks her head through the open doorway of the hut and peers in at us. We nod to her and say “Mingalaba,” or "hello" in Burmese, but we receive no response save for a cheerful grin that happens to be missing a spectacular amount of teeth. Our host tells us that this woman comes from one of the more remote villages in the area and doesn’t speak Burmese, only the tribal dialect of her village. The old woman continues to stare at us, smiling.

She is joined by another woman in traditional dress, then another and another, until soon the hut is filled with woman talking and gesticulating to each other while beaming at us. That’s when we realize it: these people never see foreigners. While the village we are staying in regularly hosts trekkers, the outlying villages- the villages where these women are from- are well off the trekking trail and are therefore completely unused to seeing people like us, that is, white people.

Finished with our tea and feeling a bit awkward to be the center of so much attention, we step outside, unaware that news of our arrival has spread throughout the village. A crowd of people has gathered in the street to get a glimpse of us. The house across the way is housing visitors from other villages for the night and its windows are filled with curious faces, pushing each other aside to look at the foreigners. Whenever we return their stares or wave to them, they all burst into laughter and point at us the way one does at the zoo when an animal does a trick.

The house across the path, full of spectators
Even the novice monks were staring at us

It is around this time that we decide to stay the night. Screw our hotel reservation. Forget that we have absolutely nothing we need for an overnight trek. 

This is way to cool to miss.

Once we make the decision, we start to settle in and make ourselves comfortable. First order of business: a shower. This proves to be considerably more difficult than expected, first because the shower in question turns out to be a barrel of cold rainwater and a small bowl, and, more importantly, because the barrel is in front of the house where a crowd has gathered to watch the funny foreigners. If we want to wash ourselves, we are going to have an audience.

If the day hadn't been quite so hot and I didn't smell quite so swampy, I might have abandoned the idea of a shower, but as it was, I was going to be a lot more offensive without a shower than with one, regardless of the group of children who had now gathered, snacks in hand, as if they were at the movie theater.

If you have never tried to wash your nasties with a bowl of cold water while hiding yourself in a stranger's longyi in front of around 20 spectators who are not even pretending not to stare at you, let me tell you, it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At least I hope it is.

At least fifty people have already seen this, why not a couple hundred more?

Once clean- and thoroughly embarrassed-  I am ushered back into the house where my host and around fifteen other village women are waiting to dress me up in the local costume. I'm a little hesitant about the whole endeavor, but who am I to say no to a mob of people who can't wait to use me as their life-size Barbie? The two other female tourists and I are robed in brightly-colored longyis, little velveteen bolero jackets and the requisite headdress. As a finishing touch, our faces are smeared with the ever-present tanaka. The village women are positively delighted to be sharing their traditions with us, and despite our discomfort in the restricting material, we are honored that they are including us in the ceremony.

The tourists, our host (center) and our friend with the semi-toothy smile

We take millions of pictures. The villagers don't smile at the camera, but they love having their pictures taken and seeing themselves in our cameras. At one point, the woman with the charming lack of teeth teaches us the moves to a traditional dance that will be performed at the ceremony this evening so that we will be able to join in later. Our audience roars with laughter as we all repeatedly butcher the intricate gestures and we get the impression that this "lesson" is much more for their benefit than ours. It is great fun regardless, and although the dancing portion of the evening is cancelled due to rain, we are thrilled to know the moves.

The main square in the village
Learning some pretty serious moves

Children weren't the only ones who loved seeing themselves on camera

We continue to be the main attraction throughout the evening and have a great time sharing a family-style dinner cooked by our host. Exhausted by the hike, the constant attention and the obligatory Myanmar beer, we file upstairs with the other four tourists staying at the house to sleep on bamboo mats on the wooden floor in the communal sleeping room.

Day 10: We are jolted awake at 4:30am by what sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks reciting a Buddhist chant over the village loudspeaker, which happens to be right next door to our hut. This lasts an hour before a bizarre carnival music starts playing and continues throughout the morning.

So much for getting some rest before the hike back.

At breakfast, we are all groggy and sleep-deprived as our sweet host brings out dish after dish of a traditional Burmese breakfast: rice, stewed greens, noodle soup, onions and rice noodles, rice crackers and chilies. Any other time of the day I would have happily attacked a meal like that, but at 7:00am on three hours of sleep it's all I can do to choke back a rice cracker or two out of politeness. To my immense relief, Vincent eats two full bowls of food as our host beams with pride.

As we prepare for the four hour hike back to Hsipaw, our host suggests a shortcut, which in theory will cut the walking time in half. As it's pouring down rain and we are all exhausted, we readily accept her vague directions.

Four and a half hours later, we are back at her house after having spent the entire morning wandering completely lost in the jungle. Embarrassed, down-hearted and drenched from the rain, we go back down the path we came up the day before. After nine hours of walking in a downpour, we finally arrive at our hostel.

Day 11- 21: If you have ever read this blog before, you know damn well that I'm too long-winded to be able to fit everything into one post.
To be continued....

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