2011: A Reckoning

Well, folks. We’ve established I am a horrible future predictor. The only reason I went out of a limb to post my plans up is because I am good at following through. I had planned all those trips. I knew when I was going to go, how I was going to go, where I was going to go.

Life has a way of getting in the way. Let’s see what happened, shall we:

Lombok. Oh. Sigh. This one irks me a little. I had an itinerary all planned out. And my work asked me to scrap the plans. I am not angry at my boss.. he did not have a choice anymore than I did. I am disappointed, though, at my fate. Lombok has been a destination on my list long before Bali made it.

Yosemite. This was a conscious elimination on my part. The cross-country road trip didn’t pan out. The moving company messed up my car shipment. I didn’t scrap the idea of a cross-country. I just changed the mode of transportation from a car to the train. A heck lot cheaper than renting a car for the entire trip, I must say. But in choosing the train, I was limited by time and route. While I said I want to go to the Yosemite Park, my heart wanted to go to the Glacier National Park. Anyone who has looked at the Amtrak map will know there are two destinations on the cross-country rail. Pacific Northwest. Or California. Glacier it was.

More on the latter trip in a later post.

I did, however, achieve my dream of going to Myanmar. It was easy and hard. I had already purchased the deeply discounted plane tickets through an advance sale in August 2010. $30, anyone? At that price, it was a gamble that I could afford loosing. But also with an actual plane ticket, it was easier to hold myself to the commitment.

More details of that trip:
Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake
Photo slideshow

Fallen plans notwithstanding, I had a lot of plans that did happen. My celebratory year in review, take a look.

Let’s hope I’m better at carrying out my bucket list for 2012. What is it? Well, do I dare share? Maybe. Let me thinking about it. I honestly haven’t really planned that far yet. Any suggestions?

Nyuangshwe: A deeper look

I spent a total of five days in Nyaungshwe, the longest I stayed in any part of Myanmar. It was the best segment of my entire trip.

I didn’t realise the boat tour was so short.. that in one day I would have “seen” all of Inle Lake. The Lonely Planet guide book didn’t have much suggestions but I decided to do them all. One each day.

One afternoon, wandering around town, I decided to check out the monasteries. I walked in on one when the novices were chanting their prayers. Startled and awed, I stood for a while just watching. I have heard the Chinese transcription of the Buddhist scripture from its ancient Pali language, when they were read out in their entirety for my grandfather’s funeral. The Burmese transcription sounded similar enough without being the same. I must have stood still for a good ten minutes before I started to take pictures. By that time, some unfocused novices in the back and side were giving me furtive glances and snuck a wave here and there. I smiled in acknowledgement and snapped a few more shots. I crept down before chants were over, in fear of getting the inattentive novices in trouble, only to descend and find myself face-to-face with an amused attentive abbot.

The highlight was my guide hike up the hills. My guide was a no-show. Family emergency. By this point, I’ve lived in Asia long enough to roll with these punches. The agent scrambled to find a substitute guide. And what a substitute he was.

The new guide didn’t speak much. He however knew everyone, even up in the hilltribes. He was moonlighting, his regular day job was as a teacher. He wasn’t even a local, being a Mandalay native. But he knew everyone. Monks, elders, kids all waved to him. We were invited into houses for tea while the hosts gossiped with my guide, discussing land sales, children’s school plans, weather, health problems. He was kind enough to give me the gist of the conversations but, for the most part, I sat silently with a smile, sipped my tea, and people-watched.

No matter how basic their living, they had something to offer me. A biscuit? Some tea? Without fail, every time I complimented a host or hostess on the tea or food (all of which truly were delicious), they immediately shuffled around for a plastic bag to contain all they had of that item to give me. There is some truth in the statement: the less people have, the more generous they tend to be.

Children followed us like pied piper. I think they were following me more than him. I learnt on this entire trip that if I showed them playbacks of photos I took of them, they will fall into infectious giggling. As much as I want to capture the reactions, I often catch their infectious laughing and enjoy playing with then more than I want to photograph the moment.

By my last day, the market vendors all recognised me from my daily stroll through the stalls. The hat vendor scolds me for not wearing the straw hat I bought from her. The tea vendor waves a fistful of her freshest product for me to sniff. The vegetable lady’s toddler waddles up to hold my hand. The butcher humourously tries again to sell me a raw chicken drumstick.

In truth, I probably can’t live in a place like this for long. I am too spoilt, too modernised, too independent, and too potty-mouthed for a society like this. Yet, coming to a culture so ancient, a lifestyle so simple, and a country so isolated has made me appreciate the simple things in life, and given me an awareness of the ubiquitous nature of joy, curiosity, and kindness.

Nyaungshwe: The Motions

I did the obligatory Inle Lake boat tour. Everyone raved how beautiful it was. Beautiful? Probably not. But the sight of the houses on stilts standing above the water, definitely like a painting scene. Unlike many villages in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand built and maintained for tourists to see, this is the real deal here. Tourists poke their camera lens our here and there, amongst villagers and fishermen going about  doing their business. While not necessarily beautiful, it was certainly scenic and remarkable.

Despite the relative low number of tourists visiting Myanmar as a whole, the area is creating sites set up for tourists. There are small restaurants catering to tourists, and for some reason they all tout serving pizza. There are guesthouses of all variations of development available. Small in scale compared to the other Southeast Asian countries, these backpacker scene is probably one of the larger ones in Myanmar.

Nyaungshwe is still a working town. Hill tribes, farmers, fishers come together to sell their various wares. Four monasteries are within a block from me. Roads are not paved and, in the rainy weather that blew in with me, everyone was splattered with mud. I got in late afternoon. There was a sense of quiet drudgery as everyone dragged on their feet to where they need to go.

I took the day ride around Inle Lake. The dark clouds provided what they threatened: rain. On and off, all day long. The long motor boat provided no cover. My translater and I huddling under a huge umbrella rather futilely. For the first time in years of living in Southeast Asia, I actually wished I had packed my rain jacket. I was used to quick heavy downpours, not day-long constant rain. My clothing will not be drying anytime soon. 

What perhaps started as a private hire boat row around the lake to see the fascinating stilted houses and towns for an intrepid curious wanderer now is a bussing of tourists from one pit stop to another. Perhaps back in the day, the travellers paddled up along fishermen’s houses, accepted a cup of tea, and met families and saw their homes. Today, I went from one “workshop” to another, where a flurry of activity ensued the sight of my boat approaching as the people took their positions on demonstration how a craft or product is made, be it cotton weaving, cheroot rolling, silversmithing. I was greeted with a cup of tea, which I welcomed in my damp state, an escorted tour, and an enthusiastic invitation to shop at the gift store.

Despite the well-versed tourist script, I found moments of wonder as I interacted with the locals. Apparently I resemble a famous Burmese singer. I must find her picture. I learnt that the Myanmar love Korean soap operas. They learnt that I don’t watch tv, despite being an American. Everyone thrust their children on me, believing my wealth and good luck would rub onto them upon touch. Children giggled infectiously when shown the playback of a photo of them.

I soon forgot my sodden state as I found many people, especially the women,  wave as I smile at them. The women were especially fascinated by me, a lone female traveller. Many wanted to touch my hair, my clothes. All were very blunt in asking about my life. How can I not be married at my age? Does my family still love me? How do they let me work by myself? How come I’m not afraid to be alone? Do I provide for my parents? What kind of a car do I drive? Why don’t I wear make up? Do I have a boyfriend? Am I allowed to live with him alone? How much money do I earn? What kind of nice clothes do I buy? Which movie stars are my friends?

Twenty minutes into the day tour, there was no doubt in my mind that I was following a very touristy script. By the end of the day, despite all the controversy of whether one should visit Myanmar and its mythical travel ban, I realised that not only had the encounters enriched me but delighted the locals just as much.