Monday, October 28, 2013

Spontaneous Sojourn

            It’s hard to break a habit – I’m back in the Cedar Lounge at Beirut Airport saying goodbye to Lebanon again. It was only about 8 hours before my flight out of Vienna that I decided to come to Lebanon this time. A friend who had indulged in a few too many drinks insisted that we should go to Beirut for the weekend. I learned never to underestimate how alcohol impairs a person’s judgment, and he learned that I don’t joke around when it comes to Lebanon. Less than 24 hours from our hasty decision in a Vienna bar, I was soaking up the sun in Beirut.
            Even with the surprise visit, Lebanon welcomed me with open arms. I spent Saturday night out with a friend in Jounieh, and the rest of the visit was spent catching up with family and friends in Roumieh while eating too much… far too much. Riding in the taxi from Beirut up to the village, the taxi driver and I chatted away about Lebanon. The driver insisted that I should have a home in Lebanon and live here. At the very least, he said, I should continue to visit at least once a year. As I walked up the steps of my cousin’s house, the driver yelled out the window, “I can see you are at home here!”
            With the exception of the seemingly never-ending conflict in Tripoli, things in Lebanon have been relatively quiet recently considering the chaos just across the border in Syria. Lebanon seems to be trying its best keep chugging along despite everything being against it. The new masses of Syrian refugees escaping the war have brought the total number of refugees in tiny Lebanon to well over 1 million (over 700,000 registered Syrian refugees, plus Palestinians and Iraqis). This is an insurmountable pressure on a country of only about 4.5 million, but Lebanon never gives up. This country has seen too many millennia of unrest, conflict, and disaster. It is this perpetual question of what comes next that makes leaving Lebanon so hard. I never know what could happen between now and my next visit, but I have to leave behind a beautiful country and many people that I care about.
            Going through passport control at the airport tonight, the officer asked, “Do you have a Lebanese ID? Your name is Lebanese.” I explained that my great-grandfather was Lebanese, and he looked both shocked and pleased. “Welcome, keep coming back,” he said. I don’t think he has to worry about whether I will return. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Embracing the Good, Remembering the Bad

Sometimes, I think I might tip too much. When I returned to Yangon for my last few hours in Myanmar, my guide was waiting at the airport and practically started jumping up and down when he saw me. I thought I’d just be going from the domestic airport over to the international terminal to wait for my flight to Bangkok, but because I had such a long layover, the guide and driver wanted to take me to a few last sites.

It was almost like they trusted me now and wanted to show me a darker side of Yangon because the last two sites we visited left me feeling a bit uneasy. First, we went to see the rare white elephants. These white elephants were found by the former military government, and they are considered symbols of power and good fortune, so they were put on display in a public garden. Five elephants stood chained to a cement display area. They rocked from side to side and paced one step forward, one step back. The chains were heavy, short, and tight, and you could see the scars left on their legs from these torturous leashes. I love animals, but I’ve never been a sappy animal rights person. Seeing this, though, seriously made my heart heavy with sorrow. The elephants were so obviously in pain, but there was nothing to be done to help. My guide said that he hates coming to this place because it makes him sad to see such beautiful animals suffering.

The next stop was one last pagoda. This particular pagoda was relatively new though, and most of it had been built by various members of the military government. Everything was a display of the virtuous and generous nature of the generals. The sad thing about this site, however, was not the source of its
finances, rather the fact that history is slowly being erased. One of the generals was particularly hated, and once the current government was elected, the public painted over all images and mentions of this general. I understand and appreciate the desire not to honor a dishonorable man, but erasing history feels a bit like burning books to me; it’s just wrong. If people forget about this man, what is to keep another man like him from coming into power?

Heading back to the airport, we stopped for a quick drink, and my guide gave me a small gift to remember him. It was a very colorful local style bag, and he said, “I don’t think you will use this, but I hope you will keep it as a souvenir.” He escorted me into the airport and then gave me a big hug before saying goodbye.

Myanmar was such an amazing country, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to visit, and I hope to return again soon. I fear that the country may be changing too fast for its own good, and the people may slowly lose touch with the rich culture that makes this place so unique. After the countless pagodas, markets, and monasteries, I can safely say that as incredibly beautiful as this country is, its people are the most beautiful element of all. I won’t soon forget their smiles, gentle eyes, and warm presence. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Floating Market Doesn't Float

My last full day in Myanmar, I was so exhausted from touring every day that I really just wanted to be lazy and stay at the hotel, but the guide had traveled almost two hours to take me out, so I finished breakfast and jumped back into the boat (ok, slowly eased my way).  Our first stop was the floating market. My guide told me, “we are approaching the floating market, but most of it isn’t floating anymore.” The only boat-borne merchants were the tourist souvenir peddlers. All the other market-goers had gone on land.

While visiting the market, we stopped at a large souvenir shop to see the Padaung women that wear brass coils around their necks. “We will see the Padaung ladies here, but they are not from here.” It turns out they are brought in every day to work in the shop and let people take pictures of them. They normally live in the Southern part of Shan State, but tourists require special government permits to travel there, so they come to Inle Lake to earn money posing for photos. The whole visit was beginning to seem a bit comical; the jumping cat monastery where the cats don’t jump, the floating market where the market doesn’t float, and the local ethnic tribe that isn’t local.

We then proceeded to a gold and silversmith shop, where jewelers were toiling away making incredibly intricate gold and silver jewelry and trinkets. One young man was making a series of increasingly large silver rings shaped like fish scales that were eventually pieced together to form a wiggling fish. I was dying to buy some of the things in the shop, but I was down to my last $15 USD for my stay in Myanmar. I knew that I needed to have dinner that night and possibly pay an airport departure tax in Yangon the next day. I think it’s the first time I’ve been in a shop when I literally didn’t have a single dollar to spare.

After the silversmith, we went out to the thousand stupa pagoda. While it’s true that the thousand stupa pagoda doesn’t have a thousand stupas, it’s not quite as funny because there are actually 1054. There
are two paths up to the pagoda, one covered staircase directly to the top of the hill and one that winds it’s way through the village and the forest along the river. We took the latter, and it was a perfect choice. I was paranoid that a snake might crawl out and attack me or fall from a tree at any moment, but we got to see more locals this way instead of just souvenir shops that I could no longer afford. One woman was making fresh rice crackers, and, for the cook inside me, it was very exciting to watch. Here, the rice crackers aren’t fried like usual, rather they are cooked under hot sand over coals. The old woman placed the cracker dough on top of the sand and then scooped the sand over the cracker allowing it to quickly puff and crisp up. After visiting half of the pagoda, the guide suggested that I go around to the other side to see the rest of the stupas. Tired, I told her, “I didn’t count on the first side, so we can just pretend I saw all 1054.”


The next stop was another beautiful temple, where there were five famous Buddha statues. “They are known for the five Buddha statues, but you can’t see the Buddha statues anymore.” I was beginning to think this was some giant scam, but it turns out the statues are still there and on display, but worshippers have placed so much gold leaf on them that they have lost their shape and look more like giant balls of gold. The five statues were always considered important, and they are floated around the lake each year on a giant royal barge for 18 days. Once, the barge capsized, and all of the statues fell into the lake.
Four were easily rescued, but the fifth could not be found. Seven days and nine miles later, the fifth statue miraculously floated back home to the temple. Ever since then, people have come in even greater numbers to see the statues and cover them with gold leaf.

After an incredible lunch of local Inle food like a caramel-like chicken with cashews, spicy tomato paste, local lake fish stuffed with onions and tomatoes, fresh green bean salad, and a great pork curry, we headed back to the hotel just in time for a major rain. I sat in my room editing photos and watching the rain beat down on the lotus leaves.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sun in Shan


Raccoon face and a farmer’s tan – they all told me the sun was strong here, but I couldn’t imagine it being that much of an issue on a cloudy day. I left behind the dry reddish plains of Bagan and arrived in
a lush, green, mountainous area in Shan state. The ride from Heho to Inle Lake was a beautiful one that curved along the narrow mountain road through the hills. We passed herds of cattle and families busy planting and harvesting rice. The road crossed the narrow gauge railroad tracks left over from the British rule, and a train was gently rocking over the bridge at barely more than a joggers pace. It takes 15 hours to drive from here to Yangon and 20 hours by train. The locals say the train ride is long and beautiful but very uncomfortable. Before we reached the lake, we also stopped at an old teak wood monastery for a quick look around. This was a teaching monastery, and it was full of young novices that were all out bathing when we came by. Their maroon robes were draped over every available rack-like surface to dry, and you could hear their playful voices joking around until the head monk rang the bell, and they all rushed back to class.

It’s funny how it is often the things we want to do least that we enjoy the most. I was not particularly
excited about traveling to Inle Lake, and almost cut it from my trip at several points. Once I arrived, I was so glad to be here. Though still sticky with Southeast Asian humidity, Shan state is mountainous, and the climate is much cooler than Yangon and Bagan. Speeding along in the boat provided an enjoyably cool breeze.

Inle Lake puts Venice to shame. The villages that dot the edge of the lake are only sometimes built partially on land; the majority rise up on stilts from the lake. There are no roads leading to most of the villages, so the only method of transportation is boat. We boarded one of the long narrow boats to weave our way through the tapestry of floating gardens to the hotel. There are 3500 acres of farms actually built on top of the water using moss naturally occurring in the lake. The local cash crop is tomatoes, and the sweet juicy red jewels pop straight from the water to trucks bound for all corners of Myanmar. I enjoyed a nice tomato salad at lunch with local tomatoes, onions, ground peanuts, oil, and lime juice.


When the puttering of the diesel motors at the back of the boats ceases, the locals use a one-legged rowing technique that I have not encountered anywhere else in my travels. Teetering at the edge of the boat on one leg, the other jets out wrapped around the oar with one hand holding it in place. This allows them to use their full body weight to propel the boats and collect
fishing nets at the same time. At the age of six, most of the locals are already well-experienced with this technique. In the afternoon, I saw young school children rowing their way home with one leg on their small canoes. It made me wonder how many times they fall in the water before they learn the balance needed for such a maneuver, or maybe I am just more clumsy than the people of Shan state.

I watched the lotus fiber weaving process, something else unique to this region. The fiber is pulled from the lotus stems one small thread at a time, and it takes thousands of stems to make enough thread for one scarf. Because of the labor involved, lotus fabrics are too expensive for most, so they also blend the fiber with silk during the weaving process. We also stopped in a blacksmith village and to watch boat makers hard at work.

Later, we floated up to a village known for making cheroot, a local type of cigar. They wrap tobacco, dried fruits, and spices in an outer leaf sealed shut with sticky rice glue and with cornhusk as a filter. This is a typical job for young girls because it is easy to learn the cheroot making technique unlike the years of training it takes to become a skilled weaver. The girls all seemed cheerful enough, but they complained that it is difficult sitting on the ground for eight hours a day. I have trouble sitting on the floor for more than 30 minutes; I can’t imagine an entire day of it.

I’ve spent a large portion of my time in Myanmar thinking I could plummet through the floor at any point. Have you ever seen the YouTube video of the woman in China that fell through a seemingly normal sidewalk? I was convinced that was my destiny in Yangon with the cement sidewalk blocks randomly rocking with the sound of a hollow thump. Here in Inle, everything is built of wood hovering over the lake. Most of the construction is pretty solid teakwood in which I generally have a fair amount of faith. The problem is that sometimes these teakwood planks are about two meters long with no supports in between. I can feel them bow under my not-so-typical-for-Myanmar weight, and I anxiously calculate step after step. I hunt for the support beams and try to step as closely to them as possible. Where none are visible, I wait for others to pass, and then I pray. I think the only thing worse than possibly injuring myself in a splintered-wood splash into a Southeast Asian lake is the thought of damaging the home or workplace of these people that are just trying to get by with what they have. It would also be regrettable that there would be no CCTV camera recording my graceful plunge into the murk.

We ended the day with a short visit to the famous “jumping cat monastery.” The monks here have long been fond of cats, and the last head monk trained the cats to jump through tiny hoops – a show that attracted many tourists with cameras. For better or worse, the monk that trained the cats passed away, and the new head monk likes the cats but not the show, so group after group of tourists cruise on up to the monastery expecting some phenomenal feline routine only to discover a bunch of lazy kittens curled up around building.

Now, I myself am curled up under my mosquito net listening to the symphony of frogs, crickets, and god knows what other creatures just outside my door. Tomorrow is my last day of touring, and I have to admit that I am somewhat relieved. The journey has been incredible, but I am used to a much more relaxed pace when traveling without guides. I look forward to lounging by the pool in Bangkok for a day before jetting back to Vienna.