What the hell….? #2

Hello! I’m safe and sound, back in Bangkok. My flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia leaves at 15:15. I’m crouched over a pubic interrnett kiosk, paying 10 baht/20 mins to use the crappy keyboard, no seat, and a very low keyboad height. 50 eet away there’s a proper internet cafe that charges an outrageous 300 baht ($10!) per hour. I refuse to legitamize them by paying that, so I’m going t suffer throuugh it here. Plz excuse the typos.

I think I left off at the end of the first day of trekking. We stayed thhe first night in a family home in a Karen villge. As I said, wee arrived very early, and had time to walk around. But Ii was compleely wiped out from the fast pace and my sickness, which began to feel like the flu. So Marjan and I just lounged by a low table with tea and papaya, our backs propped up by 50-kilo sacks of rice. Marjan doesn’t like the tea and hates papaya (as well as bananas), and I felt nauseous, so we just watched the occasional fly land on the fruit and chatted. Eventually I got up the energy to take a…well, to wash up. The outdoor “shower” consisted of a plastic tub of water pumped from the well (two young girls gladly helped fill it) surrounded by a few slats of wood with large gaps in between. Lucky, I had bought a huge green plastic rain poncho in Chiang Mai, anticipating rainy season in Myanmar. I took off my clothes, put on the poncho, wrapped my large travel towel around me for good measure (anotherr clever purchase – thx for helping pickit out Michele!), slipped into my Tevas, and went out there. The slats were a good height for a hill triber – that is to say, just above my navel. So I bathed by squatting next to the plastic tub, using a smaller bucket to pour water over myself while still wearing the poncho. A local grandma clicked her tongue and shook her head at me, but the girls giggled with delight. Marjan took pics, which I’ll upload soon.

The cool water made me feel better, but when dinner was ready I still had no appetite. I picked at some rice. Too bad, as the huge chicken curry and tofu salad that Te made looked delicious.

We were in bed by 7:30, our alarms set for 6:30 breakfast and 7 am departure. Tthe 11 hours of sleep did me good, b/c I awoke feeling  thousand tiimes better – energetic even. Marjan, however, had caught what Ii had annd had a terribl day. the first day we had walked abbout 18 km, though a good portion was uphill. The second day we had to go 26 km. To make matters worse, it rained a good part of the day, causing the hard clay earth to morph into the goopy, heavy, sticky mud I described in a earlier post. Marjan (unlike me) was anti-imodium,so we had to stop extremely often for her to jump behind soe bushes. Sorry for the gross picture, but that’s how it was – me in my huge poncho and Marjan with an umbrella in one hand and her toilet paper in anotherr, slogging through thhe mud and rain. It souds awful, and Marjan was indeed pretty miserrble, but it was actually a lot of fun (in hindsight!).

OK can’t take this effing keyboard anymore. Nnext post from Cambodia!



What the hell have you been *doing*?

Now that all my political blustering is done for the moment…

OK. Myanmar! Believe it or not, there’s a country that exists in addition to the typhoon, absurd repressive government, and sham elections. And I’ve been visiting it!

Ages ago, the last time I blogged about my trip, I said that we took a bus north to Kalaw, the so-called trekking center of Myanmar, on the afternoon April 30th. Our bus was scheduled to arrive at 6 am (18 hours), but arrived 3 hours early…at 3 am. So Marjan and I were quickly shuffled off the bus in teh dark (Kalaw wasn’t the final destination) by a gesticulating and grunting Burmese boy, who also got our backpacks from under the bus. We sleepily gathered our things from the side of the road and trudged to the nearby Lilly Guest House. We woke poor Lilly up, but I think because of her sleepiness we managed to negotiate a good rate for the room – $8 for a double (with hot shower!), I think. Marjan and I fell into our beds, slept until around 9, had a quick breakfast, and then hurried off to meet our taxi driver for the day, who was driving us to the village of Pindaya.

Sure, it was market day in Pindaya – local markets are always an interesting sight. But the real attraction was the surreal Pindaya Cave. According to local legend, seven “maidens” were trapped in the cave by a giant spider. A passing prince heard their pleas for help, killed the spider with his bow & arrow, and thereby saved the maidens. For some reason all this made the cave sacred. Anyway, Burmese and people from other countries have donated and installed hundreds of Buddha figures of all shapes and sizes in this limestone cave. For its part (and *this* is where the surreal part comes in, believe it or not) the wise Burmese government installed a *glass elevator* to bring tourists up the “mountain” to the cave, instead of having to climb the like 100 steps.

To review: Road from Bagan to Yangon: unpaved and a pox on your ass. People in the delta region: relying on resourceful and brave Yangon youth to feed them. Pindaya Caves: well-served by glass elevator complete with bored elevator operator.

After the caves we stopped at a paper and umbrella-making shop. No, not the kind sold by enterprising African immigrants on the streets of New York at the first hint of rain. I mean traditional umbrellas with bamboo frames covered with handmade paper dyed with natural dye and then rainproofed using some sort of natural process (details hazy). They also happen to be quite beautiful. Pathein, a town in the typhoon-ravaged delta region, is the most famous umbrella town in Myanmar. But Pindaya comes in second. Perhaps the local umbrellas are overshadowed by the absurdist caves.

The next day we were up early to begin our trek: 62 km through the hills from Kalaw to the western shore of Inle Lake. Our guide was Robin, Lilly’s brother and a longstanding and well-known Kalaw guide. Lilly and Robin are Punjabi Indians whose grandfather, like many other Indians and Nepalese, came to Burma with the British army during WWII. Their father stuck around. In the ’60’s, an earlier version of the absurd Burmese government kicked all rich foreigners – mostly Chinese and Indians – out of the country. But Robin’s father was allowed to stay because, as Robin says, “He wasn’t rich.” Well, Robin (a bachelor, as far as I could tell) and Lilly (who’s married and has a few children) seem to have made a pretty good life, between the guest house and Robin’s trekking. I wonder how long it’ll last.

We left our guest house at 7 am, carrying only our small backpacks with a few essentials: change of clothes, umbrella, poncho, camera, and toothbrush. We had arranged to send our larger packs on to our guest house Nyangshwe, our destination, by car (or, more likely, a cart pulled by a tractor engine.) Robin set of at what I’ll call a brisk pace. We managed to keep up, though Robin always seemed to be about 200 meters ahead of us. After a bit we asked him if there was a reason to rush – we were practically running up the hill – and she said no. “Some people like to walk fast.” He told us about a Scottish man he had just taken on the same tour, who wanted to run the whole way. We assured him we were happy to walk quickly but not jogging…and he didn’t quite get the message. We basically spent the day shouting, “What?” as he turned to tell us about a plant or animal or the history of the region from 200 meters up the road.

I can now say from personal experience that trekking uphill all day at a very fast pace really sucks when you’ve got the big D.

A brief interlude – something that’s been nagging at me and my delicate ego. A few weeks ago I posted that, during my trek near Chiang Mai, a guy had to carry my backpack for me up when I described as a “45-degree slope.” Noooo no no no. The hills on the Kalaw trek were 45 degrees, and I successfully scaled them all day with no problem. The ones in Chiang Mai were more like 65 or 70 degrees. So fail me in geometry, but please let me redeem myself a little by pleading steepness.

Back to Kalaw: we stopped for “lunch” (we arrive at 9:30!) at the Overview – a rest area/guest house on a hill overlooking Kalaw run by a Bangladeshi guy. His daughter cooked us delicious chapati with vegetable curry, which we ate looking out over the valley. Nice.

The rest of the day consisted of learning a lot about the natural history of the area from Robin, while running up hills after him. We made it to our camp for the night by 2:30 pm! Te, our cook for the trip, later asked Robin if Marjan and I do sports at home, because we arrived in the village so quickly. Ha.

Ooops gotta run. Internet cafe’s closing. More tomorrow from Bangkok airport, if all goes well (and it will!).

Chillin’ in Bagan

Greetings all,

I’m in the most relaxed mood in a while today, for a few reasons. First, after a lovely but way too long 15-hour slow boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan, I got a decent night’s sleep last night. Second, I managed to change my flight so that I’m leaving this Saturday, on the 17th, on the same flight as Marjan. Third, Bagan is the most relaxed place I’ve been in Myanmar…and we just had the first decent meal in like 2 weeks (believe it or not, fresh pasta with fresh tomato sauce). But most of all, this morning I got a reassuring phone call from the US consulate in Yangon.

It seems that one Andrea DiCastro McGough had been inquiring with her about my possible whereabouts, and she’s been calling around to look for me ever since. She finally tracked me down at the New Park Hotel here in Bagan, where she left me a message to call back. Of course, my first thought (while the woman in the hotel was trying to get through on the phone) was that something terrible had happened to one of YOU. Hehe.

When I finally got through, she was great. “I figured you were somewhere upcountry trekking and having a wonderful time,” she said. And she was right! She told me that things are pretty much back to normal in Yangon. The guest houses and most of the rest of the city have electricity back. There’s no food or water shortage in the city. It’s most expensive, but that’s pretty much it. I told her my travel plan and she said I’d be safe. So I feel better, and I hope you all feel better as well!

So, my final Myanmar plan:

Now-Thurs: Bagan

Thurs afternoon: bus from Bagan to Yangon with Marjan (arrive Fri am)

Friday – arrive Yangon; hang out in Yangon for the day

Saturday 8:30 am – flight to Bangkok, arrives around 11 am Bangkok time (12 hours ahead of NYC, so around 11 pm Friday night NY time)

I’ll send a text message to Zoe and Drea when I land in Bangkok.

OK. Enough about that. Let me say *something* about this country! It’s wonderful and strange and difficult to communicate and dirty and hot and the food sucks and the people are ridiculously, over-the-top, knock-you-out friendly and helpful and incredibly cheerful. In its “Dangers and Annoyances” section, The Lonely Planet travel guide says: “Most travellers’ memories of locals grabbing your money are of someone chasing you down because you dropped a K500 note (about $0.50) in the street (‘you dropped this sister’).” That’s no exaggeration. Everywhere we go, people say hello and “Where you come from? America?!? That’s a very good country. And you very beautiful.” They sometimes follow up with “You need something? Trishaw? Taxi? Some guest house? Buy some postcard?” – but not that often. (A trishaw is a bike with a two-seated side saddle. The “driver” pedals and you sit in the tiny seats. It’s a popular form of transport for short distances.)

In Mandalay, we befriended a trishaw driver called Tin Nyit who took us around for cheap (“I need business, so I take you for K2000,” he replied, when we told him we were going to Mandalay Hill, 4 km away, on a hot day.) And then we were stuck with him. He appeared early every day out in front of our guest house and stayed there until late at night, in case we needed a ride somewhere. We need a taxi to take us to a few ancient cities outside of Mandalay? He had a younger brother with a taxi. We wanted to go to the famous Moustache Brothers show? He could take us, and knew a great place nearby to eat dinner. Sure, it got annoying after a while. And sure, between what we paid him and the commission we’re sure he got from the places he took us, we gave him some good business. But we would have paid other trishaw and taxi drivers for the same services, and Tin took care of us. We needed a travel agent to see about flights, and he know a great one near our guest house. We had a question about anything, and he would answer or find the answer.

Anyway, he’s just one example of how people in the tourist industry here go above and beyond to make sure you have everything you need, and they’re extremely rarely sleazy about it – trying to trick you into taking an expensive trip somewhere, etc. Other people are simply curious. They want to interact with us, but don’t seem sure what to ask…thus the endless shouts of “Hello!” and delighted giggles when we answer back.

There’s so much more. Where do I start? Men in skirts (or rather, longyis), and shoulder bags. No Coke or Pepsi signs! (Though yuo can buy Coke that’s been imported from Thailand.) Cities reek of diesel. Ancient Mazdas and other cars held together with duct tape and wire. Horribly broken, pot-holed roads (even pre-typhoon). New computers stacked as cargo in the last few rows of the passenger bus from Yangon to Kalaw. Burmese “pop” music with accompanying karaoke videos played at top volume for most of the 12-hour bus journeys. “The government owns the land, the sea and the air,” said Robin, our guide for our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. “The people just lease it for 99 years. And if the government wants to take the land, they can do it at any time.”