Friday, December 21, 2012

The Daintree Rainforest- Danger Everywhere

Australia- proud to be the land of the world's deadliest snakes and spiders. Just about everything in the land of Aus is poisonous. 
Visiting the Daintree Rainforest in North Eastern Australia, we had an aboriginal guide who opened his tour of the forest showing us all the perils of the land:

"Right, you never want to go into rivers or ponds round here. Crocs- pull you under, bad way to go. This time of year, you don't want to put a toe into the ocean either. Box jellyfish, can't even see them. Deadly poisonous. You see this bush. Don't touch it, it's got prickers, penetrate your skin, go to straight into your bloodstream and into your heart, kill you. You see this red berry here. I advise against eating it, leave you dead within a few minutes. (a snake slithers into view) Take ay looky there, a King Brown. Second deadliest snake in the world. don't get close! (snake slithers back into the bush) Ay, now that's better! ... Oh wait, you see this cherry like thing. This you can eat, but not more than one. Otherwise you'll go blind."'

Daintree Rainforest along the Queensland coast



Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why I am Voting for Barrack Obama

We take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this important update: Your favorite Travel Genius has decided to vote for Barrack Obama.

Though I normally lean slightly to the left, this decision hasn't been easy for me. Here are the factors involved

Pro for Romney: He's in favor of global warming, and yours truly likes warm weather.

Con: He flip-flops on so many issues you could wear him to beach.
In Massachusetts he was pro choice and gun control. Now in order to earn his party's nomination, he has magically changed his mind on both. I don't trust him. 

Clinching Con: During the second debate, Romney said that all dividends and interest up to 250k should be untaxable.
That's great for me, but fundamentally unfair to a person working their ass off as a teacher or construction worker to feed their family. Who is creating more benefit for society? The teacher, or some wealthy person living off interest payments?
Romney's plan is fundamentally unfair, and even though it goes against my well being to vote against him, I believe society is stronger and more stable when the playing field is level, when we reward those who produce benefit for society, not lazy asses who can sit back and live off accumulated wealth.

That said, I think there has to be the right balance between taxation, and an incentive to create businesses and thus new jobs, In California for example, businesses are taxed to death.

There are things I believe Obama has done well- getting us back into good graces with the rest of the world post George Bush, opening up belief in the impossible (who would have thought the US would ever elect a black president,) the fact that we haven't had a large terrorist attack in America despite dire warnings from Republicans trying to scare people that this would happen if we elected a "soft" Democrat.
In general, I respect Romney, and don't think him a horrible individual as so many lefties would have you believe. The decision wasn't easy for me, but Romney's stance on taxation was the clincher, as it simply struck me as unfair and not the direction I want America to travel down.
We'll get back on track with our travels adventures shortly. Hope you have enjoyed this commercial time out.









Friday, October 26, 2012

Deadly Scorpions, and Why Burmese People Are So Sweet

Night falls. I walk back towards my room, an outline on the barely illuminated pathway triggers an ancient neurological association, instantly stopping me dead in my tracks. Scorpion! Small, poisonous, deadly.
Burmese scorpion- best to avoid

I stare, the beast sits perfectly still, completely unconcerned by my presence. I could walk around this creature, but suddenly see an image of it lashing it out at me like a snake. They're related right? I mean, they're both poisonous ... Where's Charles Darwin when you need him?

"Do you have a lot of scorpions around here?" I call out to the hotel worker I passed ten yards back. 
"Oh, all the time," he replies from the darkness behind me, offering me no sense of relief, 

He approaches me and Scorpy, surveys the scene, and takes immediate action. I'm certain something along the lines of "smashy-smashy" is about to take place, and am shocked when he takes a piece of paper, covers Scorpy's eyes, and dexterously picks him up by his fat tail. Scorpy's mad, thrashing his body around like a hooked shark, trying to sting my friend, but his grip on the tail is secure. 
I sit there, jaw agape, amazed by the quickly unfolding events. He turns and approaches me with Scorpy still thrashing about, instinctively I begin to run the other away, like a woman from a mouse; the only thing missing is me shrieking, standing on a narrow stool in the corner. 
My friend laughs, surprised and amused by my reaction. For him, scorpions are a daily occurrence. 
"What will you do with him?" I ask. 
"Release him outside the hotel grounds." Smiling, he walks away to finish his duty. 

I'm floored, amazed. He put his health/ life at risk, and used extra time to transport this deadly insect/ spider/reptile/alien being (whatever Darwin says) out of harms way. 

Lying on my mattress, I'm unable to sleep. The scene playing out in my head, Scorpy's fate so different than it would have been anywhere else. Why? 

The Sweetness of Burmese

The Burmese are the sweetest and most open on the planet I have experienced; only the Balinese and Fijians rivaling
I think of a conversation I had with a young women who works at the hotel, whom mid-conversation I felt like gently taking into my arms and holding to protect. She's so open, so sweet, so present, ready to help me, answer any question I might have had. No fear, no angst in her. I swear to you, this ultimate in male/ female energy polarity is almost a religious experience. 

And while I'm certain not all Burmese could be described as open and sweet, the average person is far more kind and easy going than in the in the West. 

I relate the scorpion story to a fellow traveler, he replies, "It's Buddhism man. They are taught to respect ALL life. Hell, when they pray they're praying for the happiness of the world, not just their own." 
Buddhism teaches respect for all life, including scorpions (I don't necessarily agree.) It teaches a unity of beings in the world- all interconnected.
And karma. No Buddhist wants to kill a creature and come back in a reincarnation in the form of the being whose life he put to end. 
While the Burmese are more prudish than the Thais, Buddhist countries don't have the same stigma around sex that exists in areas of the world dominated by Catholicism or Islam. It's just a part of life, accepted. There is little resistance.
In all the time I was in Burma, I don't think I once heard someone raise their voice in anger. No one got mad when I wouldn't buy from them. 
Newly made Burmese friends at a wedding we crashed
In Brazil, if you show any signs of wealth, or even are recognized as a tourist, you are instantly targeted for mugging/ robbery. In Myanmar, where the average person has far less than their Brazilian counterparts, there is zero crime.
For sure it is partly the draconian penalties imposed by the military junta government for even petty theft. There are rumors of tourists accusing Burmese of ripping them off, and the military throws the offending party in boiling water.

According to a fellow traveller, Martin, who now resides in Burma: "the reason why Myanmar people appear to be very nice to foreigners are

- hospitality is important in their culture
- curiosity
- most haven't had bad experiences with westerners
- openly shown anger is usually last resort in a personal conflict
- hierarchical society and foreigners are seen as pretty high."

For sure the government isn't great: traffic cops take bribes and if you don't have the cash, instead throw you in jail, the military continues to commit unspeakable atrocities against its own people ... the list goes on.

But the average person you interact with wants to help you, smiles freely, wants to learn from you and is willing to patiently answer any question you have, wants to be friends.
When you're amongst these economically poor people, one cannot help to judge them far wealthier than most Westerners as they truly seem to enjoy life, share what little they have, and seem to have far less ego/ insecurity.
The best thing Burma is definitely its people- just ask Scorpy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ancient Bagan Temples- Welcome Indiana Jones

I walk from my hotel gates. Not more than 50 yards later, I arrive at the edge of town. I plunge ahead, down a road rarely travelled. The path, uneven, muddy, surrounded by shrubbery on either side, most of it prickly. An electric feeling floods my body as the ancient temples of Bagan rise before me. Welcome Indiana Jones.
temples of Bagan- in the distance
I approach, enchanted by the Buddhist architecture of a millennia past. The sun drops below the horizon, the darkness adding a flavor of adventure as I cautiously navigate between the structures, carefully treading to avoid any scorpion or serpent protectors.
There isn't a another soul around. I stand for ten minutes barely moving a muscle, taking in my surroundings. These temples, built my man's fascination of life beyond himself. I think of the tremendous amount of work that went into their construction. Hauling the stones, the engineering, the pains taking attention to detail, the artwork on the walls within.
Today they sit as monuments, a dulled echo of ancient times pulsating still today.
"Welcome, Indiana Jones."

VIDEO: check out a quick view of my POV amongst the temples in the New Bagan area 
Many many Buddhas
Twelfth century painting inside one of the temples

three buddhas

Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, and pagodas were originally constructed, only 2,200 still survive, extending over forty square miles of the Bagan plains. To see each individually is virtually impossible. 
Some of the temples have been renovated with obviously new materials by the military junta that blend in as seamlessly as a great white shark waddling around the Louvre upright on his tail. 

Others still have an ancient quality that helps quiets the mind, as one contemplates just how long they have stood.
The best view I saw in Myanmar- by far
I climb to the top of one the larger structures. The view is breath taking. I sit there for an hour contemplating life, and its innate simplicity.
Although seeming so obvious in the moment, back home the essence of life, the natural love and joy that exists within us all, is often clouded by the ego which would have us believe we must achieve to be worthy.
The same ego that gave us world wars, the nuclear bomb, and terrorism. The same double edged sword named ego which ordered these temples built, that created the Vatican, the cellphone, and the Internet as we know it today.
I stare out at the magnificent view, the wind howling around me, contemplating all mankind has created, and think to myself that ego might have been a necessary part of our evolution.
Several deep breaths later, I fall into a grateful appreciation of my surroundings. I feel a unification with all life, as the past and the future merge with the Now. For a few minutes, my sense of self melts away into deep peace.
I'm not enlightened, I only see flashes of ultimate reality. In a few minutes my mind will pull me away from this moment.
However, I feel joy that these glimpses of the deep harmony that exists grow longer and more frequent. That's the beauty of travel, it helps both open, and subdue the mind, if you're willing to allow it.

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A look inside an old temple

check out this video of the best view I found in Myanmar- by far

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Rough Riding- Burmese Bus Travel

The rain abates. Heavy tires leave grooves in the muddy road, making our walk to the bus perilous. One of us slips and falls, her clothes sloppily caked in dripping earth and stagnant water. She flaps her arms like a bird, attempting to dislodge the mud, the disgusted look on her face means she’s aware of the smell. I hope she’s not seated near me.

We climb on board and hand our $10 ticket to the bus line employees, who smilingly accept, taking our luggage and piling it atop the back seat, often enduring the long, bumpy rides seated nearby, the suitcases precariously piled around them.
We wait for a couple more passengers to fill out the bus, pushing back our departure. What’s a little time in Burma?
a local bus in Burma
At last our bus leaves the station, slowly sliding around the mud, like a mammoth in a tar pit trying to regain its footing. I sway side to side as though on a boat, reminding me how easily sea sick I get. I try to close my eyes, but am buzzed by fighter jets flying overhead- malarial mosquitoes, zeroing on in their next target.
I’m focused now; one goal- kill the enemy. A mosquito flies just out of reach; I jump up and slap my hands together causing half of the bus to rotate their heads towards the sound’s emanation, gaining witness to the furious war taking place around them. I examine my weapons and find them stained with fresh blood from my slain adversary’s last meal. I proudly show my conquest to those around me, their Herculean protector, this vampire shall not feed again! … There are no applause.

I sit back down, disenchanted by the lack of appreciation for my heroics. Nevertheless, I remain resolved I shall not be bitten. I'm alert, awaiting my opportunity to strike as these blood thirsty parasitic abominations circle in formation, calculating coordinates for their next run.

A poor man’s speaker system distorts the shrieks of actors at jet engine decibels, as a movie plays on the flat-screen upfront. Their one noted over-acting would earn them an instant rejection from any Los Angeles based casting agent. We’re an hour into the movie and the actors haven’t broken once from their action of screaming at one another. I find this at odds with the peaceful and soft spoken people I have met in this country. I decide the movie must be Chinese.
A half hour later, the shrieking momentarily stops as the movie is rewound and begins anew. I groan, but no one can hear me over the yelling.

Our bus bravely plods down the unpaved road, lurching from side to side, sliding down the face of potholes large enough left to have been left by some ancient collision with an asteroid. Nauseous, sea sick, my stomach is in rebellion, I’m about to heave any second.
At the last moment, our bus stops. We scurry from the beast's belly. While everyone else takes in dinner, I sit by the side of the road, looking into the sheer darkness ahead, trying to regain some semblance of balance, trying to let the wave of nausea wash away.

Twenty minutes later we board again. People around me begin to doze off. I too, try to close my eyes, to no avail. The bus jolts, throwing me from my seat. I readjust myself and curl my body into a fetal position, attempting to give myself a fighting chance against the air conditioner which has suddenly kicked into overdrive.

Snores blare around me of operatic quality, and through their combined effort trump my screaming actor friends I have gotten to know so well as the looped movie starts up for a third time. As if on cue, I’m walloped by a curry laced fart of nuclear capability sending my senses into overload, momentarily blinding me as my body shuts down, a desperate attempt to protect itself from this inhospitable environment. Fight or flight instinct kicks in, but there’s nowhere to run, and no one to fight. Out of vengeance I slap my hands together, attempting to squash an invisible mosquito, but no one can hear my protests above the snores.
At 3 AM we pull into a rest stop, parking alongside 30 other buses, probably the only stop for 50 miles in either direction.
a billboard at our last stop- Burma will be changing quickly!

A couple late night eateries serve weary travellers.  Whitey gets stares as he groggily plods his way to the restroom, scratching the sixty bites he received for the half minute he managed to doze-off.
Hundreds of mosquitoes line the bathroom walls. I regain my sense of self, sending me on a killing spree. Vengeance is temporarily mine! That is, until I return to the U.S. and likely discover I have malaria.
I walk back outside and realize in my zombie like state I have managed to forget which bus I am on. 
I sprint from bus to bus, looking for some clue. I do two laps around the station, not far from panicking. Someone waves at me, recognizing Whitey might be lost. I board my bus, smiling at our friendly driver. “How much longer are you going to play the movie?” I ask.
“Oh, I didn't realize it was even still on,” he replies.
I walk back to my seat. Our driver has dutifully turned off the screaming actors, leaving me only the un-melodic snores of my Burmese friends to keep me company.  I smile, appreciating what my fellow passengers put up with on a daily basis. I really do lead a charmed life.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mingun, SE Asian Capitalism, and the Wedding Crashers

Forty-five minutes by boat across and up the river from Mandalay, lies the area/town of Mingun, consisting mainly, once again, of monuments and pagodas.
We climbed to the top of this ancient relic, an earthquake years ago have been destroyed much of its grandeur.  A young Burmese boy attends to us, assuring that we navigate the chasms safely, and don't fall through the narrow separations in the structure (created by the earthquake) with more than enough room for human body to fall through.
Mingun monument

Buddahs inside of course
 He offers to take our pictures, gives the girls a helping hand, and if I should have needed him to fetch me a newspaper, I'm sure he would've sprinted back to town and done so.  Of course, all this attention to us is given with the hope of a tip, of which I oblige.
atop the monument

Returning home on the boat, it starts to rain.  Everyone but me and a Frenchman living in Laos flee from the deck to shelter.  I don't mind a little rain, living in the desert called Los Angeles I actually rather enjoy the rare moments of my life when the heavens bless me with a shower.
Robert relates to me how much of Southeast Asia has changed in the last 10 years.  He describes how in the past the people were so mellow and kind, living much more harmoniously with the land.  Today, the new mindset is to get as much as you can right away, by any means possible.
He describes the black market, clear-cutting of Laotian forests for immediate gain, with the bribing of shallow officials, robbing the country of its shade and natural cooling system, eventually turning the land into desert (I'd feel like I was back home.)  Turn the hardwood into exportable furniture, and reap a tremendous profit.
He laments how greedy the people have become. "It didn't used to be that way," he explains.

The problem with the unfettered form of capitalism is its need for growth and profit at the expense of all else.  A factory that pours its nearly invisible carcinogenic chemical waste into a river, adversely affecting the health of those living downstream, will argue that it's not the company's problem, and that enforcing environmental regulations would create massive lay-offs by raising the cost of goods sold, and affect its competitiveness with China.  They will argue how un-American it is to employ these "burdensome regulations," and that the Environmental Protection Agency was created by a Communist devil.
This photo makes the area looked much more forested than it truly is. Nice view of the pagoda

I personally am a believer in Adam Smith's invisible hand theory (business is good), but capitalism needs regulations or else it will destroy the world by its own avarice.  A few extra dollars does not mean a better quality of life.  I'm not a fan of teachers unions that stand in the way of their brethren being fired for incompetency, but to vote for Newt Gingrich and other Neo-conservatives would mean an assault on all regulations at the behest of business, and while some are certainly burdensome and unnecessary, eliminating them all would mean a lower quality of life.

The Wedding Crashers
We walk back from the docks, dodging through the heavy Mandalay traffic.  We look inside a restaurant, and see festivities taking place. A wedding?
the married couple
Gazing in we attract the attention, and are immediately invited inside.  The ceremony was recently concluded, and we are seated, cake and ice cream placed in front of us.
me and kids at wedding
The spirit is festive and joyful, and most of the guests are intrigued by our presence. The bride and groom immediately venture over to me, standing behind, as a videographer films us. I feel like I'm in the spotlight, that they want me to perform and say something memorable.
"Yo, we're straight from America, celebrating the happy couples wedding. Much blessing to y'all and everybody in Burma. Straight from the USA! Word up! Celebrate," I punctuate my speech with a semi gang sign.

I'm not sure anybody will understand a word I said. They'll probably look back one day on the video and wonder who was that crazy guy?  Is that a gang sign? More importantly, who the hell invited him to our ceremony?
When they went around to each and every guest with the camera for some video shots, I felt a little bit of an ass for making such a spectacle. But hey, isn't that part of the fun of life?

video: crashing a Burmese wedding

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Moustache Brothers and Freedom of Speech in Burma

I'm told of the Mustache Brothers, two Burmese political dissidents of Myanmar who have been arrested by the regime multiple times for speaking out.  One spent six years in a forced prison labor camp.  Although technically banned by the government from doing so, they bravely perform a show nightly, catering almost strictly to tourists, where I'm told they do comedic political commentary. I'm interested, and agree to go. The ticket costs $10, and there are 15 of us there meaning they are raking in a tremendous amount of money (for Burmese) on a nightly basis, though I suppose it doesn't make up for six years spent at a labor camp.
Advertised a dance show- for a reason
 The show opens with one of the brothers, a small, thin man, with his trademark long white moustache brimming down to the sides of his face, speaking to us about his country. He has the confidence and delivery of a comedian who's been on stage every night of his life. He's good. 
"I went to Thailand to go to the dentist," he explains, "and the dentist is surprised when I tell I'm from Burma and asks me whether or not we have dentists in my country. Oh yes, but in our country we are not allowed to open open our mouth."
Moustache brother and wife
The funny and likable mustached man proceeds to play a several video clips of Hollywood celebrities who speak to us comedically and seriously at the same time about what is going on in Mynamar. Kneeling on the floor, next to the DVD player, he fast forwards the DVD to the parts he wants us to watch.
Though amusing and interesting, I am waiting to hear more from him. He's spoken only a few minutes so far, and he brings out his wife to show us an old, traditional Burmese dance. After she is done he explains, "I have a cousin standing outside, looking around in case somebody is casing our show, if we see him talking on a cell phone or something, my cousin will give me the warning, and we run," he says as he does the running man dance.
He's amusing, but deadly serious.

One traditional dance follows another, and none of them are Barishnikov. I am bored, this wasn't what I came here for. After nearly an hour, he gives us two minutes more of his defused political comedic stylings, then ends the show with a T-shirt sale.
the various dancers who performed
"I'd say that I was dissapointed," says Shannon from New Zealand, "but to look at the bright side, I wouldn't have been able to experience this anywhere else."
For a few steps as I walk outside, I also feel let down. Why did he show us the videos? Why all the dancing? And the thought hits me, just how brave and cutting edge this show is.
He CAN'T say anything else. He is pushing the limits as it is right now. He let's the Hollywood celebrities say what he cannot, or would certainly end up back in prison. Even letting them speak for him, he runs serious risks.
And he wasn't joking about his cousin standing guard outside. Each night they put on this show he is dancing (haha) the very fine line of what this repressive dictatorship will allow! I salute this brave man, and in his honor, I will tell you what he cannot (and hasn't) about the government. (Yes, he said none of this, I was going to report it anyways for any of you beauracrats in the regime reading)
check out some clips of the show in this video

Republished from Wikopedia

Burma is a police state. Government informants and spies are omnipresent. Average Burmese people are afraid to speak to foreigners except in most superficial of manners for fear of being hauled in later for questioning or worse. There is no freedom of speech, assembly or association.
Several hundred thousand men, women, children and elderly people are forced to work against their will by the administration. Individuals refusing to work may be victims of torture, rape or murder.
The Burmese media is tightly controlled by the government. Newspapers, journals and other publications are run under the Ministry of Information and undergo heavy censorship before publication.

A 2002 report by The Shan Human Rights Foundation and The Shan Women's Action Network, License to Rape, details 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women, committed by Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) troops in Shan State, mostly between 1996 and 2001. The authors note that the figures are likely to be far lower than the reality. According to the report, "the Burmese military regime is allowing its troops systematically and on a widespread scale to commit rape with impunity in order to terrorize and subjugate the ethnic peoples of Shan State." Furthermore, the report states that "25% of the rapes resulted in death, in some incidences with bodies being deliberately displayed to local communities. 61% were gang-rapes; women were raped within military bases, and in some cases women were detained and raped repeatedly for periods of up to 4 months." The Burmese government denied the report's findings, stating that insurgents are responsible for violence in the region.

According to Human Rights Watch [4], recruiting and kidnapping of children to the military is commonplace. An estimated 70,000 of the country’s 350,000-400,000 soldiers are children. There are also multiple reports of widespread child labour.
Evidence has been gathered suggesting that the Burmese regime has marked certain ethnic minorities such as the Karen for extermination or 'Burmisation'.[21] This, however, has received little attention from the international community since it has been more subtle and indirect than the mass killings in places like Rwanda.

--------- So there you have it. I'm no longer in Burma, which means I can visit the dentist. ------

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The 'Grand' Palace and Up Mandalay Hill (Myanmar)

I rent a bicycle from Mr. Jerry. Like most businesses here, his is home based, the downstairs a sort of garage for his bikes with many oily rags and tools lying around to clean and repair his aging cycles. Mr. Jerry isn’t there when I arrive, and some of the locals chase him down a block away. I see him racing back in an effort to earn the $1.50 he rents the bicycle to me for the day. I find him affable and kind, like most Burmese I have met.

I set out to visit the palace where the king of Burma once resided. The grounds have a sordid history, as rumor has it (someone told me) that an astrologer once recommended to the king that to ward off evil spirits he should bury 50 people alive under the palace, which, somehow (people can be soooo touchy,) angered the victim’s families, and they showed up in mass and slaughtered everyone in the palace.
I could see the astrologer bragging to his friends beforehand, “This king is so stupid. If I can get him to believe this one, man, this will my crowning achievement!” I doubt the astrologer fared well in the aftermath.
You know the only thing affected by the alignment of the planets? The tide (credit to Mr. Moon)
the palace wall viewed from afar

Dodging through traffic, I bike my way to the palace wall, following it for a couple kilometers to find the East (and only) entrance to the complex. I come across two girls journeying to the same destination, and hop off my bike and walk with them.
Anna and Belen are from Spain, and will be my partners through most of the remainder of journey through Myanmar. We converse mostly in Spanish, switching sometimes to English when I had difficulty; “resbala” means slippery, I learned only after I fell on my ass. (Que?)
The palace costs $10 American to enter (they won’t take their own Myanmar money here!), and frankly, it’s a complete waste of time. The whole complex was recently rebuilt, and lacks whatever charm it might have previously had, along with the majority of relics that used to exist inside.
For me the most interesting part of the experience is the fact that the military has appropriated much of the palace grounds for officer homes, and big red warning signs tell me not to veer from the path we are currently on. “Restricted area-” wish they had put that sign in front of the whole complex before I contributed ten U.S. dollars to the military junta.
area resticted 

DO NOT step off the path (notice how much is red)

Mandalay Hill
We begin ascending Mandalay Hill, 45 minutes to an hour up a series of never ending steps, featuring flat levels with various large, golden Buddhas, along with various stands, locals trying to scrape by selling water, soda, and snacks. 
one of many Buddhas
kneeling Buddha
It’s debilitatingly hot. I’m an athlete, but here the stifling humidity saps my energy and I feel the need to stop once in a while to gather the necessary strength to journey onwards. We continue our climb, because, what else is there really to do?
We are promised a nice view from atop the mountain, but are in for an even greater treat. Storm clouds are forming, the breeze is getting cooler and stronger. Moments before we finish our ascent, dark clouds blanket us completely, reducing visibility to zero, and the heavens open, pouring rain upon us like a bathtub faucet. Step out from cover and get instantly soaked.
Rather than being disappointed, we find it a relief. I feel invigorated and refreshed, grateful for the opportunity to be drenched, the cool water replenishing my energy.  
check me and the boys having fun atop Mandalay Hill in the deluge
golden nearby pagoda

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mandalay Traffic, Heat, and Mosquitoes

I arrive at the HeHo airport and pay to call, from a local land line, the travel agent who arranged my Myanmar tour. Cell phone SIM cards cost $250 for locals (an average month or two of earnings!), and the government has strict controls in place to help prevent a Facebook style/ mobile phone connected “Burmese Spring.” I am told that departing the country I’d lose my pre-paid hotel bookings, but if I’m not going to be able to exchange my money (which I wrote about here) it’s going to be one sad trip. I take the risk and proceed onto Mandalay where I split a cab with a local executive of a Myanmar wine company who is meeting the next day with a potential Chinese buyer. He speaks better English than the average Myanmar citizen- which puts him in the half intelligible conversation category. I consider sad this state of affairs, especially considering that Burma used to be a British colony.
What happened was the forward thinking military rulers decided to eviscerate all foreign languages from the already sparse education system, wanting no outside influence whatsoever. Today, both the people and the tourist pay the price.
My new friend has been working at the wine company for 15 years, and describes his product as “passable.” His salary, in excess of $1,000 a month, makes him a well above average earner in this impoverished nation. He tells me that people are hoping the new government continues to enact positive change that will create better opportunities for them, and everyone is very excited the U.S. recently lifted economic sanctions. “Pepsi, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Phillip Morris will offer people opportunities and jobs,” he tells me, “they will help us.”
bicycle rickshaw in Mandalay
Of course, McDonald’s will come in here and likely change what was largely sustainable agriculture into a factory farm system described in “Fast Food Nation” (an excellent read by the way,) Phillip Morris will sell poison and add further strain on the world’s worst health care system, and Pepsi and Coke will be selling their acid to a people whose teeth could not get any more rotten without outside help. Way to lend a helping hand corporate America.

Thirty minutes later we’re inside Mandalay, a typical South East Asian city with the ubiquitous motor bikes running to and fro. What cars do exist, leave thick plumes of black smoke in their wake, the free-for-all that is commuting here punctuated by traffic lights being almost non-existent.
light traffic close to the train station
Mandalay sits in the dry belt of Myanmar, but now is the rainy season, and the droplets cascading down from the heavens are a welcome relief from the oppressive heat and humidity which sits on you like a heavy, sweaty blanket much of the day.
Having traveled fairly extensively around SE Asia, and other tropical regions of the world, I completely understand why technology, and civilization as we know it now, developed in the more temperate climates. Firstly, they had to prepare and plan for winter, store food, develop ways of doing so. In the tropics, you merely need reach over head to pick a mango or a coconut. Most of your basic needs are easily met.
Necessity being the mother of invention is literal, the aforementioned heat and humidity makes an individual want to do exactly nothing. It takes great determination to keep moving around in the sweaty, dusty, super-heated atmosphere of Myanmar.
this video contains some clips and scenes you'll find in Mandalay

Most buildings here are old and worn down though some of the hotels catering to tourists have new facades on them. I’m somewhat of a novelty here, several times girls ask if they can take their picture with me. Unlike Thailand, they aren’t trying to sell their bodies, but prostitution, like everywhere, also exists.
There are almost as many mosquitoes here as motor bikes, some as big as birds. Encountering a large one triggers your fight or flight instinct, 50/50 to attack or run away. I’m a largely easy going, peaceful person (except when I play basketball) but I take some perverse pleasure with each mosquito I swat- I feel like I’m doing the world a service. I guess it’s a two way street though. My legs are itchy, red, and raw from being bit. No soldier emerges from war unscathed.
And speaking of two way streets, most of the side streets are one way, but that doesn’t prevent some crazy motorbike riders from heading in the opposite direction, nearly crashing into me on my rented bicycle, we’re talking inches here. He smiles, and peels away, leaving me, adrenaline pumping, taking deep breaths to calm myself down. When you’re in this alternate reality, you have to learn to accept where you are, and not try fight against it, otherwise you won’t enjoy a moment of your travels.  God is it fucking hot. I laugh and continue on my way.

tanaka logs for sale- ground up, and used for beauty purposes

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Counterfeit American Money With a Crease (Myanmar)

KBZ Bank, a much newer, more elegant building than those surrounding it. I dismount my bicycle and am escorted by two smiling "guards" who cover my entire being with two sun umbrellas as I climb the four stairs to the top where the glass door is opened by a pretty girl, everyone is all smiles. I feel so welcome it's almost a joke. I imagine this is what it's like to be a high rolling whale in a casino.
While the spreads at the bank between for exchanging dollars are low, about 1%, the currency standards in Mynamar are the highest in the world, and I mean that literally.
They inspect my Benjamin Franklin and politely tell me they will not change it. Without an objection, I pull out a second hundred- rejected. A third as well.
"But this is real American money! I got it from a bank back home."
the Burmese kyat
"We cannot take. It is creased. Our central bank will not take such money from us."
Yes, one of the bills isn't in great shape, the other two are crisp and clean, and have been maybe folded over once. The creases are barely detectable.
There are no ATMs in Mynamar for foreigners, and there is no way to use a credit card; you have cash or you have nothing, and the only currencies accepted are Singaporean, the Euro, and  American.  I brought enough with me, and inspected the bills before hand and thought them fine. Apparently I gave away all good "good" money in Yangon at the travel agency where I booked my hotels and airfare in advance.
Now I get frustrated, unaccepting of what I consider to be the idiotic reality that the Burmese have about currency. I'm sure one moronic bureaucrat at the top set the policy, and everyone else unquestioningly follows. I'm also certain we are at the tail end of this policy, and would bet my $300 worthless dollars it won't be this way in a year's time.
check the stacks of bills inside the bank

I cringe, I have less than $100 of Mynamar cash, not nearly enough to last another eight days in this country when I have to pay a fairly expensive cab fares, plus bus, food, and entry fees.  I know it's not the  employees' fault, but I have to take a deep breath to stay relaxed.
I go to five different exchanges, and stores, nobody will take my U.S. currency.  What am I going to do, I saved up so much money, and now I can't even spend it.  This must be what people felt like in Zimbabwe when their money got inflated to zero, or when you went to the bank during the Great Depression, and found it closed. (in Dubai I saw a 5 billion dollar Zimbabwe note pinned on a board next to a $1 American bill that had more value)
How am I going to get around?  How am I going to eat?  I suppose I could try to exchange my money with some other tourists, but everybody else either needs to guard against ending up like me, or are already in the exact same predicament.
I finally find a store owner who will take one of the $100 bills, but at huge discount, nearly 18% off the top goes into their pocket.  I don't have much of a choice.
Unless I find someone else to take my other $100 bills, or my Thai baht, I'm stuck here with only lodging booked in advanced.  This experience is going to be a hungry one.  I'm sure I'll find a way, but I'll have to be resourceful. The locals have no money to pay for the services of a jiggolo. Better stick to foreign girls ...

Beautiful Inlay Lake and Egoic Religion- (Myanmar)


Welcome to Inlay Lake
“Can I swim in the lake?”
He laughs. “No.”
I’m surprised. “Why not?”
“Because on the surrounding hillsides they started using lots of chemical fertilizer for the crops a couple years ago. It all washes into the lake.”
“And poisons one of the great natural resources of the Myanmar people.”

rice paddies by Inlay

on the banks of Inlay Lake

6:00 AM: 
We board our long boat, and start winding our way through the canals, wooden ramshackle houses and temples dotting the banks. We stop at an early AM local market, where produce, meats (fish and chicken), are sold to the Lake Dwellers. One enterprising man targets us, attempting to sell us what appear to be old Buddhist scrolls.  While likely made to look aged by a not so distant Chinese factory, I must admit, they are quite eye catching.
We hit the open lake, and observe fishermen pounding the water with long sticks of bamboo.  Boats pass us ferrying produce across the lake.  I relax back in my seat, the early morning sun warming me as I look around at the green mountains engulfing us. 
Our tour guide now takes us from one lakefront store to another.  I’m frustrated I don’t have the money to purchase anything, as is the case of the Portuguese man and his wife taking the journey with me.  We ask our boat driver to cease stopping at any more commercial enterprises, leaving only a large Buddhist pagoda on our list to site see. 
bathing with water buffalo, by Inlay Lake

Religions Perverted
As I compare the tremendous amount of work, effort, and artistry that has gone into creating all of the temples I have seen, I consider the ludicrous percentage of income that people historically have spent supporting religious institutions and wonder just how big a return on investment has been derived. At its best, religion is a uniting force for good, and sets a positive code of moral conduct that people follow because they inherently see the value of doing so. At its worst, the teaching of the great prophets is perversely twisted by egoic men wearing robes for their own glory. You need only look at Al Qaeda’s “holy war” against innocent men and women. “The Innocence of Muslims,” has been used as an excuse worldwide for murder. Would Mohammed not be far more offended by the killing of innocent people in his name than some insensitive film?
And the radical Israeli settlers trying rob the land the Palestinians have been living on for centuries due to some “biblical right?”
Of all the world’s religions, I think Buddhism has the best track record. One need only look at the average citizen of Myanmar, most of whom are blissfully sweet, and honest, despite having nothing. However, even Buddha’s teachings have been perverted, as women are “prohibited” from the altar. Ahhhh, the egoic human mind. The beauty of the internet- less separation. We see how interconnected and alike we all really are.
the sign read "ladies are prohibited"

Return
As we return to port, many others are starting their journey, and I’m grateful to have left so early in the morning. It’s very hot. I briefly consider going for swim. After all, who couldn't use some chemical fertilizer to make their skin shine.
check out some visuals from Inlay Lake in this video

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Trekking Around Kalaw, Myanmar in a Monsoon

I fall asleep to the soothing sound of heavy rain which continues unabated until 6 AM. I rise, and step onto the soggy, padded earth, which sponges most of my momentum, adversely affecting the physics equation as I attempt to hop over a puddle. SPLASH.

My guide and I trek through town, friendly Burmese people smiling and waving hello; here, no soul is unknown. At the edge of the village, two four year old boys race to us, presenting brilliant, red welcoming flowers, the gesture so sweet it warms my heart on this chilly, overcast day.
green vista, few trees
We start ascending the mountain, 5,000 feet above sea level; mile high, explaining what look like deciduous, evergreen trees. 
The chasm in communication formidable, my guide speaks English- very broken.  I decide to keep my questions to a minimum. Most of the trees have been cut down, used for firewood, housing, and now exported as timber; plantations, mainly tea, replacing. Forests remain only on land where the soil is deemed too poor to grow.  
tea plantation, the small trees/bushes
The clouds burst, the power of the torrential rains shocking; drenching me instantly. I slip and slide across the slick, muddy path.  The vistas here are unspectacular, which isn’t much of a loss since my entire focus is needed on the slippery ground in front of me in an all-out effort to stay erect. 
Ten kilometers later, we break at a tiny village with a Nepalese restaurant.  The hot green tea is welcome, and I down several small kettles.  I fill up on bananas, and a couple chapatti.  A group of four Belgians and a Japanese man stop by.  They are going on a three day trek to Inlay Lake, a trip I surely would have been on had I not uncharacteristically planned out my stay in this country in advance. 
We eat outside, sheltered from the monsoon by a thatched roof. Having barely moved for the last half hour, I start to shiver, my body chilled. I see my breath for the first time ever in Southeast Asia. I’m suddenly feel grateful to have chosen the “less adventuresome route” for once.
I take refuge inside, surrounded by the restaurant’s meager collection of pots and pans.  A small fire burns in the room’s center, I warm myself, fruitlessly attempting to dry out my socks.
drying socks over fire
We head out. The steep road morphs into a waterfall, and I expect a mudslide to sweep us away at any moment.  We veer off the road into a remnant of forest, the vegetation absorbing more of the moisture. 
All wildlife here has been hunted out of existence, you'll be lucky to spot a bird.  We trek through the trees for almost two kilometers before we meet up with the main road.
Mud swallows my leg to my knee, which with great effort I remove from the quicksand.  We trudge 8 km through the deluge; our teeth chattering incessantly. 
I think of the soldiers in Vietnam, their descriptions of being in the jungle for weeks at a time, unable to dry out, shoes eternally soggy.  I shudder at the thought, how uncomfortable it must have been. If you wrung out my clothing right now, the water would flood the Sahara.
Slogging slowly through the muck for several hours, at last we make it back to base. I tip my guide and bid him adieu. I remove my dripping shoes and socks, take a warm shower, and throw myself, still shivering, back under the blankets, darkness fleeting, my room being lit by flashes of lightning as I listen attentively to the symphonic monsoon still playing outside.

PD'ing my Princess in Myanmar



Friday, September 7, 2012

Money, Gold, and Life in Myanmar

I get into his 1988 taxi, which he enterprisingly rents for $15 a day, charging the above average rate of $9 for the 45 minute ride from the airport to downtown.  My luggage goes in the back, resting directly upon the gas tank.  I sincerely hope we don't get rear ended.
I'm asked to sit in the front and chat with him.  Burmese people are famous for their friendly nature, and my cabbie more than obliges.
"Where are you from?"
"America."
He smiles warmly. "We very much like American tourists here.  You and the Germans are the best, you complain about nothing and are always very kind."
"Germans?" I state dubiously.
"Oh yes, Germans.  Very nice. Excellent technology too."
"Which nationality of tourists do you like the least?"
Without missing a beat: "French and Israeli."
"Why?"
"They complain about everything. 'oh, this cab is 22 years old, the window doesn't work right, I only want pay you $5 not $10.' "
Old colonial building in Yangon
The radio turns on without either of us touching it. "Oh good, today is working," my driver states with an enthusiastic smile.
"People in Myanmar are very friendly and honest.  We very much value tourists here, and if you ever have any questions you can ask anybody and they will do their best to help you."
Average salary here I am told is just a little north of $100 per month. The security guard working in front of the building gets paid less, $50 a month.
“But he is grateful to have a job,” my cabbie explains, “many people are out of work.”
It’s best here to work for yourself (as it is almost everywhere.) My new friend tells me he makes three to four hundred dollars a month after paying expenses, and his wife has a hair salon, and makes between $700-$1,000 a month. Mind you, these people work long, long hours, but with a combined income north of $1,000 they are firmly middle class, and can afford most things in this developing country.
“Do you save up money for a house, your own car?”
“It is very hard, such things are very expensive compared to what we are able to save.”
Yangon, view from atop down a narrow street
“Where do you put your money?”
“We keep at home.”
“Not in a bank?”
He laughs. “No! No one puts their money in the bank.”
Not long ago, the dictatorship had a problem with one of the banks, and shut it down, causing many of these impoverished people to lose their life savings.  They only trust two forms of currency, cash, and he even more so- gold.
"The price of gold always goes up," my friend states, perhaps tapping into the consciousness of the sweaty, overworked printing presses magically creating paper money for the economic powers of the world. Gold, another currency used by man for thousands of years, has a much more fixed supply. Along with most other commodities, gold will, according to many, increase in nominal value as paper currency is devalued from its rapid printing.
Playing "hackysack" with a wooden ball in Yangon
You know how you buy a house for a car here in Myanmar?  Cash.  Not a check mind you, we're talking cash.  When someone purchases the house, they literally bring over wheelbarrows of cash, and considering the largest bill in Myanmar is worth $6 US, you can imagine how much time and effort it must take to count out the equivalent of say, twenty five thousand US dollars.
The price of hotels here is not cheap.  For a country with a such a poor population, you would think the price of lodging to be much less expensive (relatively.) What happened was that as the regime began to "normalize" there was a rapid increase in the number of tourists, and all accommodations became sold-out, so, as economics dictates, the hotel owners began raising their prices, and as tourists continued to pile into the country, prices kept going north.
Women transporting pots with son in Yangon
The economic possibilities here in Myanmar are mind blowing.  There's a need for everything-lodging, new cars, credit cards, and of course real banks, which will have a huge and near immediate impact as they ease the transactional friction I described above.
As a tourist, you literally have to bring all the cash you will need into the country. You cannot withdraw cash from any “ATM,” you cannot use a credit card, and most currency isn’t even accepted. American dollars, the Euro, and the Singaporean dollar are the only paper here worth anything, and each of those bills has to be in MINT, un-circulated condition in order to be exchanged or else they will be rejected.
I’m not kidding, a hundred bill I had with the most minor of creases was treated like a counterfeit bill, from the ancient planet of Noblodoom, which had, moments ago, been puked on. “We don’t want this,” they stated, shoving the bill back at me a look of disgust on their faces.
The U.S. lifted sanctions months ago and Pepsi and Coca Cola have already announced they are coming back to Myanmar, along with McDonald's and jolly old Phillip Morris (tobacco) who will do their best to put the world’s worst healthcare system under even more strain. Most people here have sadly never been to the dentist, and their smiles/mouths reek from the consequences. 
Piles of discarded durian (the smelly fruit) rinds on the street
One thing is sure, Myanmar will be changing rapidly. Seeing Myanmar as it is right now is a little bit like time traveling back thirty years. The truth, it’s like a change-up in baseball, it takes some work getting adjusted to the speed; I myself, find that I'm going to bed earlier each and very night. It's 8:00 PM here right now, I'm getting tired ...