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.