March 25, 2009

Foreign Food Favorites

One of my favorite dishes in the Yunnan region of China is a cold soba like noodle with a peanut, soy, vinegar and chili sauce topped with fresh cilantro and radish.... Yum!

March 21, 2009

Foreign Markets - Dali, China

Since the world financial markets are in such a state of distress, I thought I would report on the healthy trading going on in the local village markets, which is everything from ....
                               dried fruit and tea
                         and the dentist stand....yikes!

March 18, 2009

Smothering non-attachment with fabric....

Crap! Just when I thought I had started learning the art of non-attachment, I took a stroll through Dali Old City and hit upon a street full of groovy fabrics which immediately had me trying to locate the the China Post office on my map. Where is Buddha when you need him? 
Admittedly, I am a sucker for fabric and when I saw these Japanese style door covers in bright spring colors I suffered a non-attachment breakdown. 

Weekly Foreigner Favorite - Accordion Player, Olkhon Island - Siberia, Russia

Daily Delicacy - Dali, China

Eating in China is certainly one of the highlights of a visit here. From bugs on a stick to hot pots to street barbecues to peking duck, this country will keep your taste buds on their toes.
When I arrived in Dali, I passed restaurants with an amazing assortment of fresh vegetables outside. I went to the first place which was right across the street from the major tourist gate of the Old City, but they didn't have a menu and when I charaded food going into my mouth, the two girls starting giggling wildly and then they ran off and hid in the kitchen.
So, I went next door, where they seemed to have gotten their hands on a copy of
Business for Dummies and they were prepared with an english menu. I ordered braised assorted vegetables and got a piping hot plate of spinach, watercress and some other leafy green I couldn't identify. It was a great lunch and a great way to recharge the system with vitamins.

Taking the Buddha's Words to Heart

After a month in Burma, Mister Buddha really started to make an impact. Watching in the mornings as the monks would walk the streets in their robes, barefoot, with only a small bowl for rice donations, I started thinking...if they can do, I can do it.
When I got back to China, I simplified my life. I extracted the bare minimum, threw my vain attachments (eyeshadow, nail polish) in the communal box at the hostel and left my big backpack by the side of the road.
While I have a little more than a robe and bowl of rice, I did manage to let go of a lot of things I thought I couldn't live without. And the more I live without them, the more I realize I don't miss them. And the more I don't miss these things, the happier I am. See how that works?

Chaung Tha, Myanmar

I didn’t realize how dusty and tired I was until I reached the shores of the Bay of Bengal. The 7 hour early morning bus ride had dumped me in a sleepy, non-touristy beach town that other traveler’s described as “Thailand 20 years ago.” With all the Monk-ey business going on in Burma, I had originally planned to seek out a ten day meditation to clear my head and recharge my travel energy, but as I sat on the front porch of my room, listening to the waves break as I watched the sunset over the water, I was confident that the meditation had found me.
I had forgotten the soothing powers of fresh beach air and salty water. I hadn’t seen a beach since Greece the previous June and, since then I had been traveling hard through Russia, Mongolia, and China.
I had planned to stay for three days, but upon arrival I frantically called the woman arranging my flight back to China and postponed my return so that I would have a full 8 days on the beach. By the second day, I was successfully reduced to a nap-taking, coconut-drinking, book-reading pile of puddy.
As I slowly started to relax, the lessons of my travels started to come to the fore of my mind. Even though I wasn’t meditating in a monastery, I seemed to be coming to the conclusions of non-attachment and it was here in Chaung Tha that I decided to simplify my life. I had been carrying around a huge backpack with a bunch of stuff I never used and I decided it was time to let go.
I thought about how conditioned we have become to despise discomfort and how we try to avoid it at all costs; if it’s too cold, we turn up the heat, if it’s too hot, we turn up the air, if we are in pain, we pop a pill, if it’s too noisy, we complain. And the more we are attached to the fear of discomfort, the more confined in our comfort zones we become, and the fear of physical discomforts seem to mimic the emotional ones, sometimes keeping us locked in unsuccessful relationships or jobs we can’t stand. I thought of all the items I was carrying around in case there was a moment when I might be forced to feel a few hours of discomfort; extra antibiotics and sweaters and socks and shoes. As I have been slowly knocking down my fears by traveling, it was time for this one to go as well, and along with it, about half of my backpack.
This type of meditation was working for me. I felt myself coming to clear conclusions, and yet I was able to arrive there by drinking beer and eating fresh food with a stellar group of newfound friends. I didn’t have to be silent, shave my head or wake up at 4:00 a.m. I didn’t have to wear a robe and ask for rice. I could just enjoy the psychological benefits of my newfound freedom with my feet kicked up on the terrace table, coconut in hand and a fresh fish on the grill.

Yangon, Myanmar

When I first arrived in Burma, I met a nice American couple, who said they had been to a small town in between Yangon and Inle lake, where they stayed in a quiet and beautiful teak lodge overlooking rice paddy fields. I remembered this as I was leaving Inle Lake and wanting a few days of solitude to read and write, I booked a ticket to Tongoo.
The bus ride from Inle Lake to Yangon is a grueling 18 hour overnight journey with inside temperatures of too much heat in the day and too much air conditioning at night. After the first part of the white-knuckle ride down a huge mountain pass, I looked at my bus mates headed to Yangon with sympathy as I was stopping off mid-point and only had another few hours left. When I originally boarded, I had handed my ticket to the attendant, who is responsible for waking you when you reach your stop, and as midnight was approaching, I was dozing in and out of sleep. It seems as though the attendant was as well, because when I awoke at 3 a.m and asked when we would be reaching Tongoo, he sheepishly replied through an interpreter that we had passed it over two hours ago.
As I was now headed for Yangon, I was fuming with disappointment. I had been looking forward to spending some down time in Tongoo for my entire trip. As the air conditioning was freezing the outer layers of my skin and my legs were now getting used to the idea of not moving for a long time, I tried to steer my thoughts away from throwing the attendant off the moving bus. And as I started to find my center again, I realized that I didn’t really have a lot of room to suffer such a disappointment in this country. O.K, I missed a stop on the bus, but how, I thought, must the people of Burma have felt when they voted for democracy in the elections only to have their votes and their voice discarded? They must have felt disappointed. Just like the time I got stung by a bee on my foot while visiting Auschwitz, having it swell to three times the size, I humbly shut my mouth, threw away my attitude and adjusted to my new itinerary.
Yangon it was. I arrived with my French friend Claudie early in the morning and I had a repeat performance of when I first arrived in the country, only being able to mutter the words for “bed” and “shower”. I was lucky to follow her to a guesthouse where within an hour, both of these were at my disposal.
Claudie and I spent the later part of the day wandering around town, cooling off by the lake and visiting the famous Shwedagon pagoda in the early evening. I had gotten so used to cities with almost only dirt roads and generators, that I was surprised at how up-to-date Yangon felt. Walking the streets, I felt like I was truly in a city. There were moderately modern stores and businesses of every kind. There were fancy hotels and bars and restaurants. And there were paved roads and cars.
Yangon got blazing hot during the day and I still had another week left on my visa. I thought the only way to remedy this situation was to head West, to the beach of Chaung Tha. So, after just one day and one night in Yangon, I rearranged my plans to continue my pursuit for a little peace and quiet.

Inle Lake, Myanmar

After a beautifully long and dusty trek from Kalaw, that packed in a lot of action, from a Buddhist monastery robbery to a travel mate who was from the Land of Backward Thinking, Angie and I arrived, tired and dirty, to the flowering trees and lake breezes of Inle. I quickly concluded that the only way to numb the reality of our stolen money was to use what currency remained to buy some big bottles of local beer, whereby after a few of these, we actually started to think that it was a bit comical, if not a good story….a good and expensive story.
At our guesthouse, Angie and I managed to meet a lovely group, a Dutch couple and a solo German traveler, who we joined forces with to explore the waterways and floating gardens that give this lake it’s fame. We all set out by boat and made the super touristy loop, visiting floating markets where everyone sells the same assortment of jewelry and trinkets, visiting the silk making “museum” where robbery is justified on a price tag, and to the very strange cats-jumping-through-a-hoop monastery.
The floating gardens were indeed very cool. There is a dense water leaf and soil that grows on the lake and when bunched together it literally forms a fertile island that can be built on or harvested. I am sure they grow all types of fruits and vegetables, but the only English word our guide knew was “tomato”, so my official knowledge is that they only grow tomatoes.
We had managed to make it to another group of ancient pagodas and as we were walking the long path flanked by vendor stalls all selling the same thing, there was a screaming kid. The small boy belonged to a German father and an Indian mother, but they were all speaking English making me think they were coming from America or Canada. It’s easy to see the differences between the well behaved children of Burma and a temper tantrum prone Westerner, but then again, this poor kid had probably seen a million pagodas and was suffering from disappointment when he realized that Mickey Mouse wasn’t going to jump out of any of them. During one of his fits under the hot sun, with no other children around, surrounded by crumbling pagodas and adults, his father turned to him and said, “Now you better behave or we’re not taking you on vacation next year!”, to which the very smart child kept crying.
After a few days of touring the lake, it was time to make my way South, toward the quiet town of Tongoo. It had been a great trip, and even though I had lost $30 in a heist, I had added a new friendship…and well, that is priceless.

March 16, 2009

Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek, Myanmar

Kalaw is a small mountain town, with fresh air and paved roads, which is popular on the tourist circuit as either a base camp or starting point for different treks around the area. I had made my way there with the intention of finding some other traveler’s who wanted to share a guide for a three day, two night hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake, another one of Myanmar’s highlight attractions.
I was lucky to immediately meet Angie from England who was not only interested in the same trek but happened to be a very compatible personality as well. Much like me, at the same age and on the road for four months longer, she was also redefining her life through travel. We had spent our first night getting acquainted with each other over dinner, and then with some whisky, some new Burmese words and some popular music bands over drinks in the town’s tiny eight-stool bar.
The next day we arranged for the trip and met our guide Alex, who was a bright and energetic local with great English skills and ten years experience with trekking. We told him we wouldn’t mind sharing the trip with other people, if there were any, but that we also would be fine if it was just the three of us. The three of us (Me, Angie and Alex) were a harmonious combination, but fresh clarity does not always spring from harmony, and it seems as though that is exactly why John from Canada joined our group.
We picked John and his
porter up on the morning of our departure. John had vests and pants with lots of zippers and gadgets of all kinds hanging from his small daypack. He also had another medium size bag that was being carried by Kalo (Kalo from Kalaw), a nice boy who he had hired to transport the bag with us for the three day journey. Angie and I both asked John why he didn’t send his bag ahead to Inle Lake by truck like the rest of us. His reply for why he hired a porter was “Because I can” and then proceeded to refer to Kalo not by his given name but rather as My Porter. I thought of asking John why he didn’t hire another porter to carry around his mother so she could wipe his ass along the way, because at 51 years of age I wasn’t quite sure he was capable of that task.
Right away, the surrounding nature was beautiful and varied. Alex spent the morning explaining a lot of the plants and trees while telling us to slow down and take time to enjoy where we were. Yes, take time to stop and smell the poppies. Poppy plants, I learned, were being harvested in abundance and, along with the state controlled gold and gem mines, it was part of the reason that there are restricted zones such as the one I had to hire an escort through upon my arrival at the border. There is also a rising problem with heroin addiction in a number of villages and on my previous excursion outside of Hsipaw with Ko Palaung, we sadly attended the funeral of his 27 year old cousin who had died of an overdose.
I passed the time by engaging in a Burmese language lesson with Alex and by afternoon I was nearly fluent with phrases like “I am tired”, “I am hungry”, “I am good” and “I am happy”. However, the most useful word I learned was not “Thank You”, “Please”, or “Welcome” but rather the one used to describe someone as a “crazy jerk “, which phonetically sounds something like sow jue. Sow Jue started to roll off my tongue in shorter and shorter intervals as the more time I spent with John, the more incidents that occurred, which started to expose the depths to which he was a “crazy jerk” .
We had one such incident at the home of the medicine man. After lunch, Alex asked if we wanted to visit the local doctor, who is a traditional medicine man servicing the villages with remedies made from plants. We arrived at this 75 year-old man’s house and promptly took off our shoes and went inside. He sat, simply, on the floor of his home answering all the questions that Angie and I had. We were interested in the process of making the medicine, what types of illnesses he cures, how he learned to heal and if he had any children to pass the gift of healing to. While we were busy learning something new, John was in the corner being…well, John.
When we entered this man’s home, John never bothered to take out his earphones, which was still blasting music from the ipod attached to his arm. He sat his heavy frame on the floor and proceeded to immediately take out his oversized-in-your-face camera and click three shots of the medicine man without ever even saying hello or engaging in any conversation. Then he put his camera away and lied down with his legs spread as if he was at his buddy’s house watching a football game. When he pointed his upturned feet at the medicine man’s Buddha alter, Alex nervously asked him to change position so that he would not cause any offense, to which John grunted and turned. While the rest of us sat and talked, John lied on the floor listening to his music. When we were finished with our visit, he put the equivalent of a dollar bill in the greased nook of his palm and, on our way out, slipped it into the hand of the medicine man as if he was doing a great service to humanity, while in actuality he had only managed to cause another offense. I was tempted to ask the medicine man if he had a cure for arrogance and ignorance, but all I could mutter was sow jue.
We had spent our first night in a small village. When I had gone into the kitchen to hang out with Alex and the wife of the house, she had become curious about me. “Where does she come from?” she asked Alex. “How old is she? And where is her husband?” Then she kindly told me I was pretty (Thank You). Then she kindly asked me if I was a virgin (?).
The second night we slept in a Buddhist monastery. After a beautiful but long day’s walk in the heat, we arrived at the calm and peace of the monastery, which was nestled in a kind of forest. There were other traveler’s there as well and we all had curtained off quarters inside a large wooden structure with Buddha statues. There was a group of ten young monks residing there, whose voices became an inevitable 4:00 a.m alarm clock during their morning prayers. As we were leaving, I happened to look in my wallet and found that I could not account for about $30. I thought I must have put it somewhere and yet all day I just couldn’t do the math in my head. It wasn’t until we already reached our final destination of Inle Lake, when Angie looked in her wallet, that we realized we had been robbed! In a Buddhist Monastery! My goodness, is nothing sacred anymore? Maybe it was payback for secretly wishing the monastery was a cold beer stand after the day's long hike. When I announced the misfortune, my friend Alberto emailed me and asked if I had gotten a description of the guy….shaved head, red robe?
When I thought about taking this trip, I had wanted an athletic and scenic way to get from point A to point B. But like most travel, it is usually never that simple, and I am grateful for that. Even though John had exhausted my vocal chords by being such a sow jue all the time, he also reminded me of exactly why I was traveling and how much I had seen. By observing him, I realized that it was possible to travel all over the world and never really see a thing. Sure, John can say he has been to Burma, but I personally witnessed him shut out the words and culture of the people with his music and solicit a friendly hello only if he was going to get a picture out of it.
He taught me that instead of blindly blazing a trail through this world, I will let the world gently blaze its’ trail through me, through my mind, through my heart. I have learned the most when I have tossed my fears aside and just jumped into the amazing bubbling cauldron of humanity. I am sure now that I started my trip as one person, but that I will certainly return as another.

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