November 22, 2014

hsipaw to mandalay

i leave Hsipaw on the train heading down to Mandalay and some vague plan to get myself to Inle Lake.  according to the guide books, this is an 'epic train ride'.  seriously?  i already did the Yangon to Bagan train which in my humble opinion is the ride required to earn a I SURVIVED MYANMAR RAILWAYS badge.  there is however, along this ride a very beautiful gorge with a very, very scary train bridge.  it's so old and crappy and rickety that the train has to go really slow as not to deteriorate the bridge further.  why not just go really fast and get as many carriages as possible across before the bridge collapses?  or how about you just pony up the money to replace the bridge?  note on the ticket stub i've purchased .... THERE IS AN ACTUAL ALLOCATION FROM MY FARE FOR LIFE INSURANCE!!! what am i doing??  the total cost of this ticket is 2750 Kyats which is $2.75US so i'm not sure how much the insurance payment would be anyway.

it's a big moment for all the foreigners [the locals sleep through it].  we are excited before, during and after crossing the gorge/bridge.  we even ask for seat assignments to have the best view of the bridge.  we take hundreds of photos and hang out the windows.

afterwards someone says to me, 'i have like 100 photos of a bridge'.  yah, i know you are dying to see it... so here it is.

perhaps as important as the safety issues around replacing the carriages and bridges and other railway infrastructure is reinventing the logo for Myanmar Railways.  i get the MR but what's up with the symbols underneath?  time to rebrand i think.

anyways, it's a 6 hour train ride and costs $2.75US.  when we hit Pyin U Lwin we bail on the train and take a $2US/2 Hour pick up for the ride back to Mandalay.  i make a feeble suggestion to get a shared taxi as that would be inside a vehicle but i go along with the fellow travelers who want to take the pick up.  even though it is raining.  the ride is surreal but not uncomfortable.  the pickup is covered so we aren't wet or cold.  i put on my earphones and just soak it up.  the smoke from a cigarette, the rain on the canvas covering our heads, the guy who is sleeping on the floor between our feet, the bundles and bags that the locals carry, the lights from passing cycles, cars and trucks.  this is Burma.  raw, unfiltered, dirty and noisy.  i've been traveling all day and i should be exhausted but i am so alive.

November 21, 2014

my halloween candy

not everyone celebrates halloween and in asia it goes by unnoticed but when i was a child it was a magical day.  there was no praying, no going to church,  no tie to any geopolitical or national tradition.  it was a pure holiday about dressing up and getting AS MUCH CANDY AS POSSIBLE IN JUST A FEW HOURS.  i remember how my mom would create the costumes that were our identities if just for one night - they were not store bought but sewn on her sewing machine after we went to bed at night.

and our neighbors were oh so willing to fill our bags with candy .... our parents would corral us into the back of a station wagon with NO SEATBELTS and cruise around the neighborhood dropping us at the end of a driveway to let us race up to the door shrieking TRICK OR TREAT and this would only end when the parents were tired or the kids fell asleep.

even today i can remember the high from collecting a bag full of candy in one night - sure older siblings helped themselves to the best of my treats but there was still so very much for me to enjoy.

now i'm 'grown up' and don't go around collecting candy usually i just give it out but my godson who can still legitimately collect candy because he is six years old set aside some candy to send me.  so here it is ... my brother has photographed it and sent it to me.  so if you send a photo of candy instead of actually sending the candy, does that still count?  or does he still owe me the candy?

i don't want to get all 'CSI' on the photo but since it looks like it was taken at office on some type of official document i'm guessing the 'evidence' has already been consumed.  someone is going to have to go to confession.

November 20, 2014

a really really spiritual moment

it wasn't in a church, stupa, pogoda or temple.  in one of the villages i was a silent witness to an amazing spiritual moment.  we were invited and visited the local buddhist monastery in the evening during their devotions.  there was lots of regular stuff like chanting, candles, men in robes, incense and some other not regular stuff like bats flying around.   afterwards we were back at our home stay, tucked into our beds [mats on the floor in the main living area] when the Mom came home.

despite the fact that strangers were sleeping on the floor right next to her devotional alter she removed her headpiece exposing a completely shaved head, lit some candles and proceeded to pray. 

her prayers were a combination of singing and chanting and silence and it was probably the most beautiful spiritual devotion to which i have ever been witness.  i have no idea to whom, or for what she was praying, but i hope it was listening and has answered her prayer.  the picture of her kneeling with hands raised in prayer in the light of the house candles will forever be a magical moment for me.

November 18, 2014

tea with guerrillas

Hsipaw is a great spot to jump off into well, what i call the villages.  it's the grey zone between where the government is comfortable having foreigners and the restricted area.  i didn't have proper footwear for what would turn out to be a very long trek.  the first day was spent clawing my way up a downward stream of mud.  not a lot of photo opportunities since it was raining all day.  we are tired when get into the village where we sill be staying.

as we pack up to leave the village this little guy comes down the village path to see the foreigners.  the woman at the home we were staying told the little boy that we were taking away children in our packs!  he turned and ran away very quickly - i thought that was really mean.  i didn't bring along anything for the children and we were in areas where we were still a curiosity and children were interested but wary of us.  and no wonder if the mean spirited grannys were telling children we were kidnappers!

the time in the villages were a real window into the lives of ordinary Burmese people.  we passed through Shan and Palaung villages.  we stayed in homes where dinner is still cooked over an open flame in the living room.  we met women trapped in the cycle of poverty.
we saw the power the budhist monks weld in some of the villages.  we played with kids during recess at a school.  we crossed paths with the shan and palaung armies which was a bit confusing at the time.  there are all these armies that fight each other and sometimes band together to fight the Myanmar Army and there are more three letters acronyms for these groups than exist in the whole of washington d.c. afterwards to me it seemed that it is a bunch of narco warlords fighting for control of the resource rich areas.  they were however, quite polite to us, posing for photos [which we were later advised not to publish anywhere public] and sharing a cup of tea.  i can share the photo of this jumbo red snail that was crossing our path.

in one village we stayed at the home of these lovely ladies where the meals are cooked over open flame inside the house.  we knew there were multiple sisters in the family and there was one woman who sat apart from us, in an asian squat, smoking her cheroot, but wasn't participating in the preparation of the meal.  someone asked if that was also a sister and they said, 'no, she's a villager who has come to see the foreigners'.

there is no internet.  there are no cell phones.  they have some solar panels that have been provided by the government but electricity is used sparingly.  they have water courtesy of USAID in most of the villages.  they grow their own food stuff in private gardens.  this is a primitive life.