|I remember being at the office late one night and screaming over the wall to a friend and now former co-worker, “AGGHHH I HATE PEOPLE!!!!” While this was never completely true, it wasn’t too far off. I kept those select few I trusted close and a watchful eye on those who hadn’t penetrated that inner circle. This second group was large, larger than most realize. Because while on the surface I’m pretty open and friendly, just because I like or even love someone doesn't mean I trust them. I was constantly on the lookout for any sign of being betrayed or disappointed, careful not to miss a warning sign. Occasionally I would crack in a spurt of haphazard confidance, then immediately pull away. Some who have known me for the better part of this decade (or happened to be around when I was in the midst of a rare bout of drunk blabbing) would say they knew exactly when and how this happened. A few family members will counter that I've always been a little closed off. I guess both parties are right; you start out with certain tendencies and then life occurrences either strengthen or weaken them. In this case, stuff happened along the way and I chose to let it color how I saw the world. Everyone has been and will continue to be let down by those around them, but I saw it much more frequently simply because I was looking. In fact, I was often anticipating. But the reality is, I had a solid group all around me. My immediate and extended family is unparalleled in their support, assistance and love. Many of my parents' friends have been like family in this sense too. I have more than a handful of wonderful friends who've had my back in countless ways-- there for everything from venting sessions and sage advice to awesome hangouts and hysterical laughter. My job brought bosses and coworkers who became some of those closest to me both inside and out of work as they among many other things pushed me up, cheered me on, reigned me in, enabled me me to shine, let my b.s. slide and helped me grow; when I quit their excitement for my upcoming adventures outweighed everything else, sending me off with a goodbye party and the backpack I've carried every step of the way. Even with my least favorite topic, dating, most of the guys' only crime was being interested when I've wanted nothing to do with even the vague threat of a potential relationship. Despite all this, I was always scared of what might happen if I let my guard down. There were times I was selfish and even sneaky if it meant staying two steps ahead of any damage that might be inflicted. As a result, I probably hurt more people than would’ve ended up hurting me. And it certainly prevented ‘people’ from topping a list of my favorite things. None of this is something I’m proud of, but it’s also something I didn’t know how to escape. Until I got to Southeast Asia. Quickly these defenses started crumbling, admittedly still pretty intact at first (proved by backwards glance over my shoulder in Java and Sumatra), but falling away faster and faster with each new experience since. Since being in Myanmar there’s no walls left. After three weeks of being surrounded by the absolute best individuals imaginable, the only thing I can think when I look back at my former self is how could you’ve been so damn stupid.
Everything about Burma is beautiful. It’s not just in the things you see but how this place feels, like you’ve stepped into the warmth of a hug. The old buildings are beautiful. The food is beautiful. The scenery is insanely beautiful. And the people, well the Burmese are the most beautiful human beings on Earth. This country is wonderful in every conceivable way, comfortable enough to be easily enjoyable but not so much that the important things have changed. While I would've loved to have been there closer to when the borders were first opened, not a day that goes by I’m not eternally grateful to be right here, right now. What about the lack of internet, you ask? Who cares; I’m connected enough not to need any connection to the outside world. And the dictatorship ruling forces? Not as bad as I anticipated or nearly as tyrannical as it once was (but still not good; I’m choosing to let all the positives outweigh the government, which is pretty screwed up of me considering the long oppressive history). How about the nasty betel nut so many chew, destroying their smiles and resulting in red spit staining the streets like a massacre has just taken place? Ok, that’s pretty gross; can’t argue there. Many friends and family members have asked me which country I like best, an impossible question considering how many factors there are to consider. While I probably won’t ever know what it’s like to have kids, imaginably it’s like asking to pick a favorite child— it may change depending on the day, mood, circumstance, etc. without ever having a definitive answer to funnel that infinite amount of love towards. So while I can’t firmly point my finger at one, I will say that Myanmar contains many of my favorite aspects on a piece by piece. Everyone is truly thrilled to see you and seems to want nothing more than to make your visit better. Guesthouse stays unfailingly start with an exuberant “Welcome! Welcome!” as smiling faces rush over with fresh fruit and water. They, along with bus/taxi/moto drivers and strangers, cheerfully unburden you from huge bags usually much too large for their small frames. With the exception of gov’t imposed foreigner camera, toilet & entrance fees (plus some sellers in Bagan), no one tries to overcharge for anything. In fact, it’s usually the very opposite; I’ve regularly had people hand me small gifts or share their belongings, such as the woman who tied together my purse strap with her beaded necklace or the one who insisted on giving me tons of extra fruit when all I purchased was a few bananas. Waves, grins, friendly arm squeezes and kind gestures abound without wanting anything in return. Like in all of Southeast Asia, there seems to be no limit in how far people will go out for their for you. These are the sort who rush out in greeting when you arrive and are legitimately upset when you leave. Your happiness is their happiness (and vice-versa) and it’s truly the most beautiful thing in the world to be part of.
Beyond the many obvious differences from the rest of SE Asia, there is something very special about the culture. Due to the country being essentially sealed off from the outside world for so many years, almost everything remains authentically Burmese. While much is now more developed than I expected and infrastructure has come a long way, most would be astonished to realize how poor the wifi is or essentially nonexistent cellular communication, not to mention that the power goes out at least a few times each week. Typical tourist trappings are just beginning to catch on in certain areas, but for now it’s still largely unadulterated. Instead there’s an abundance of caring and friendly guesthouse workers, market vendors, souvenir sellers, waitstaff, restaurant owners, drivers, tour leaders, and passerbys who have absolutely no idea just how amazing they are or how much I’ve held back from hugging each of them. English is minimal and things translated not nearly as often I’ve come to expect. There are less Western influences than anywhere else I’ve been and a stronger devotion to traditional ways; even in the biggest cities, ‘modern’ clothing is very much secondary and most faces are still artfully smeared with Thanaka to protect from the sun and beautify the skin. In many ways, being here is like stepping into a living time capsule. Despite keeping so many customs intact, what some might call “progress” is starting to rear its ugly head. Whenever I come across the odd advertisement for Pond’s Whitening Cream or someone trading their longyi for a pair of pants, my insides clench as I struggle not to scream " don't you know how unbelievably gorgeous you all already are?!??" How can I make them understand how jealous I am not to be in their gene pool, that so many on the other side of the world would kill to look like they do now? Of all these things to wonder at, perhaps the most beautiful of all is the joy that seems to permeate the entire country; despite decades of struggle and cruel tyranny, everyone from the youngest child to oldest adult emits light and energy— always singing and dancing, laughing and playing as they go about their day.
Not knowing this, I touched down in Mandalay with some trepidation, unsure just how challenging this country would be. I’d been warned of non-existent amenities, many lodgings and areas off-limits to foreigners, difficult transportation, mountains of red tape, near impossible money exchanges, and on and on and on. Within minutes of landing I felt all my nervousness melt away about this oh-so-foreign and politically volatile land; this was going to be a pleasure. And it was, every step of the way. Once off the free shuttle Air Asia graciously provides into the city I glanced around for a moto to take me the additional 4km to my guesthouse, only to be approached an elderly man with a taxi. My soft spot for this face lined with wrinkles like the folds of a blanket was apparently returned; he insisted on knocking 2,000 kyat off the government set fare because the remaining equivalent of $3 was 'too much money for someone so young traveling alone'. Along the too-short drive he gave valuable information about the city and insisted the next day I take a motorbike tour of the area because a taxi would be unnecessarily expensive. Ignoring my protests, he shakily heaved my monstrous bag over his hunched shoulders and left me with his phone number. “We are now friends and I will help you however I can while you stay in my country.” This sentiment, while perhaps never touching my heart quite so thoroughly since, was repeated more times than I can count over the next three weeks. Such caring generosity of spirit is somehow astonishingly present in virtually every local, exemplifying the very essence of what all people should be like… perhaps who we all were before greed and suspicion took over, fear whittling away at the very core that made us all human to begin with.
Getting in mid-afternoon, I arrived exhausted and lazy to a near empty hostel. Briefly meeting a Finnish girl in the dorm who had also recently gotten in, she seemed really cool but also happened to be kinda sick. While her debate was whether or not to join me for an abbreviated look around the city, mine was motivating myself to get going after an almost sleepless night hanging with the Thai hostel trio and a crazy morning frantically bouncing between airports. Eventually I got up and was introduced to JoJo, who's around my age and therefore able to impart a sense of how the younger generations are navigating this rapidly changing country. Even better, he became my buddy as we talked about serious topics and sang cheesy songs over the roaring motorbike engine
as he whizzed me around the sites I could squeeze in over the next few hours-- the countless ghostly white arches containing the World’s Largest Book and base of Mandalay Hill before I climbed up the pagoda-studded stairway to the sun setting through the Glass Palace at the top. Later as we continued chatting at the hostel after dinner, I learned he used to be a photographer but switched to tours because it paid better and allowed him to practice his English while meeting different kinds of people. The fact this talented young man could make more money shuttling around tourists rather than taking his impressive pictures made me mentally wince. Again I was struck by the determination younger people around here have to expose themselves to as many global perspectives as possible, something we have such an abundant ability to do and so rarely take advantage of.
The next day I joined the Finnish girl and two Germans on an “Ancient City” tour, which expanded far beyond the current Mandalay limits. It was a brilliant 12 hours spent with this hilarious group and while the sightseeing was definitely enjoyable, it was infinitely more so because we were doing it together. As with much of Myanmar, the day was filled with tons of temples: one carved entirely out of teak, a gorgeous sprawling site where worshippers layer its main Buddha with handmade gold leaf, and another crowning a mountaintop. One thing’s for sure, the Burmese love to bling out their Buddhas. This onslaught of mirrored glass, technicolor hues and flashing LED lights detracts from all those demure elements, which (in my opinion) are much nicer in their aged elegance. Watching hundreds upon hundreds of monks have lunch at a famous monastery was a particular highlight, though a somewhat unnerving one. Yes, it was wonderful to see the seemingly never-ending stream of shaved heads in procession with silver bowls in hand and observe the townspeoples group efforts in feeding them. But the very idea that this daily routine is a standard itinerary stop is unsettling, yet again turning people’s lives into an exhibit for the gawking tourists shoving their way to the front with huge cameras. I mean really, how would you feel if a crowd constantly showed up to stare at you getting lunch? All sharing similar feelings about this matter our little group pondered whether we should participate at all, tussling between selfishly wanting to capture the unbelievable scene before us and thoughtfully retreating to let these people go about their meal in peace. Inevitably, we did a little of both. My other favorite attraction was much more straightforward in its appeal, a sunset boat ride at the famous U Bien bamboo bridge. The remaining standout activity wobbles precariously on the line of lowlight and highlight. This excursion to what I’ve renamed Mud Island would normally have been nothing more than a nice walk around a historic little land mass if it weren’t for, you guessed it, the mud. Now lets be clear; this was no ordinary oh-it’s-pretty-slippery mud. I’m talking halfway up your calf, suck you under the surface, swampland kind of mud. And of course being idiot backpackers, we witheringly dismissed the countless offers of horse and buggy used by all the smart visitors and decided to check out the island on foot. Two torrential downpours and countless falls later, we emerged at the dock looking like four creatures from the black lagoon. But on the other hand, the second crazy rainstorm led us to huddling under dwelling thanks to two lovely local women and a young boy whose intelligence was matched only by his steadfastness. Plus when the storms had passed and everyone waited for a boat back, the scene was heartwarming beyond belief. From village boys running over to gently guide passengers into the boat without slipping while others washed down the gangplank, to bringing buckets of water over to help clean our sandaled feet, to literally diving underneath the dock to retrieve a pair of fallen sunglasses, the Burmese soul shone clearly. While it feels odd that I barely saw any of the actual city of Mandalay itself, particularly for someone who usually makes it a priority to spend at least a solid day wandering the streets, in this case I think more important things revealed themselves in other ways. As I jot down notes not even three full days in, despite not yet viewing the spectacular scenery or rural charm, even without being immersed in lifestyle or experiencing more than a hint of the population’s wonderfulness, I am deeply in love with Burma.
I got really lucky with my first bus ride in Myanmar. Not only was it comfy and clean, but one of the guys I had dinner with the night before secured a Hspiaw-bound ticket for the seat next to mine, so I had a stellar bus buddy for the breathtaking 6 hour climb up the steep and windy mountain pass. Making me gasp in both delight and anxiety every time I looked down from the window, the giant vehicle on a road so narrow the driver kept bumping into the forest bank with every hairpin turn, was making my new friend seriously uncomfortable. This was probably not helped by me enthusiastically encouraging him to check out the scenery before I realized the actual level of his nervousness. Luckily, the “let’s make up our own dialogue for the hilariously bad Burmese movie playing” game provided distraction until it got dark enough not to notice the view. Upon reaching our destination I forewent the popular backpacker hostel in favor of a smaller, less known lodging. For some reason I’ve felt much more compelled to help spread money around in this very low season here than in other countries; the enthusiastic greeting from the woman at the otherwise vacant guesthouse immediately validated this decision. Soon after I was disappointed to learn I’d been misinformed in thinking Hsipaw was a prime base for day treks, one of the main reasons I’d gone. Turns out 2-4 day ones are standard, but they could combine one of the overnighters into a 12-hr intensive outing. Umm no thank you. Well, maybe. Hmm better stick with no. According to this bubbly human trip advisor there were a lot of excursion options (she was right; I could’ve easily filled another day more than I’d stayed) and after a leisurely morning in the cute town, I decided to make my own hike. Following a rough map through some small villages and rice fields, it quickly became apparent why Hsipaw is such a beloved ‘off the circuit’ locale. The surrounding green-on-green landscape imparts a captivating calmness while many ethnic tribe villages offer ample opportunities to see basket, shoe and parasol making from all those who graciously allow you into their homes for closer observation. A few hours rapidly passed until the stifling heat and lack of water veered me back into town. I had just finished lunch at Mr. Food (one of Hsipaw’s most endearing traits is how everyone in the tourism sector have aptly re-named themselves: Mr. Food, Mr. Book, Mr. Shake, Mrs. Laundry, etc.) when a friendly girl from the dorm in Mandalay sat down with two guys. I’d totally forgotten she came up the day before, but was psyched to run into her. Staying to chat while they ate, Juliana, Greg and I made a plan to cycle to 5-Buddha Hill for sunset, reconvening after they paused for ice cream while I stopped for a fruit smoothie and round of catch-the-passionfruit with the amazing Mr. Shake’s adorable young daughter. Parking the bikes and climbing to the top with just enough time for backpacker tales and photography tips- both are annoyingly well traveled, plus killer with a camera- before streaks of color spread across the sky and we all shut up. After dinner with my bus buddy we all met up to solidify the next day’s activity over a few beers, agreeing to bike a few kilometers and then hike to a waterfall hidden up in the lush hills. Much tougher than any of us expected, everyone was grateful the spectacular scenery gave an excuse to take many breaks, coupled with photo-ops. Finally at the top, the sheer cliff cascading with rivers of crystal water was truly something to marvel at, made even better by its deserted nature. Lounging by the small lagoon and leaping off rocks into it made the hours fly by. By the time we walked down, rode back, got lunch, talked about finding decent coffee and then actually got said decent coffee, it was late. Very late. Too late. As in I only had 10 minutes to return the bike, walk to the other side of town, get my stuff and haul ass to the bus station. Oops. But guess what; the guesthouse had sent someone out to find me and instructed the driver to wait. I’m telling you, this country is the best. Ignoring the lack of sleep and woman puking her guts up behind me (someone always gets sick on these rides, ironically usually a local) it was a nice ride. Rolling past golden cornfields, clumps of emerald trees, rolling hills, wisps of smoke emerging from thatched huts, and eventually an incredible sunset giving way to a velvety star-studded sky, it was the first time in my life I can remember being perfectly happy to just gaze out the window for hours.
By 6:30am, I was feeling less warm and fuzzy about the bus. Sleepers don’t exist in Myanmar and the upright position takes any chance of my actually sleeping for more than few minutes from unlikely to impossible. So despite not wasting a day on the road, I arrived at the awesome hotel (who graciously let me check in before 7am) on Inle Lake and promptly passed out for most of the day. The bit of time I did manage to drag myself outside, it became clear that I would really like this place. Very very touristed (previously just by Burmese but since the international community was allowed in, the town of Nyuang Shwe has gotten so packed in peak months that some end up sleeping in monasteries), monsoon season blessed me once again. My memory will be of a lightly visited town that didn’t feel very touristy but did have a friendly atmosphere, lots of places to wander around, great food, and of course, absolutely fantastic people. However nobody comes to this part of the country to hang out in Nyuang Shwe itself; they’re here for life on the lake. And so, on my first real day, that’s exactly where I went. Having pieced together a hodgepodge group of other hotel guests the night before, I could not have gotten luckier with who I was sharing the boat. Two friends from Austria and Elise (originally from Ohio, then lived in Guatemala and is now based in England as an NGO consultant which keeps her constantly bouncing from one country to the next) were a combination of funny, sarcastic, goofy, sensitive, worldly and alternative that provided a perfect counterpart to my plethora of personalities. With no end of things to talk about, the day got off to a late start as we met just after sunrise for breakfast but still didn’t manage to head out until after 8. Just being on the water itself was incredible, something that could be an entire day’s activity without a minute of boredom. I couldn’t get enough of the floating villages. Fisherman with oars securely wrapped around their legs emerged from the morning mist with hand-attached engines puttering against solid wood vessels in the early silence, while children bounded to the lake’s edge to splash water on their sleepy faces and wave at us. The area’s beauty is like a gift you’re hesitant to completely unwrap, anxious to see it in entirety but not wanting to rush through each delicate layer. A mountain range colored in shades of blue and green that resemble a globe seems to stretch endlessly in every direction, in a way that I like to think protects the larger community from anything bad in the outside world. An hour had somehow passed when we arrived at our first stop, hurriedly exiting the boat to explore In Dien. The major markets operate on a rotating basis here, with a different location each day of the week. As luck would have it, that particular day’s was in a village housing a site I wanted to visit anyway. Because we had gotten such a late start, the morning market was past its prime (they usually start around 5 or 6am then wrap up by 10) and most of the sellers had packed up their wares, leaving primarily the more souvenir oriented jewelry/craft/textile ones. Which happened to be fantastic and really well-priced, taking a lot of restraint to resist. While the Austrians preferred to spend the remaining allotted hour sipping tea at a chai stand, Elise and I made a beeline for the architecture beckoning from a hilltop. Similar in our interests , we simultaneously caught sight of an old structure almost hidden in overgrowth and beelined in that direction from the covered stairway leading to the reconstructed temple at the top. To our delight this obscured section was like a pagoda graveyard, scattered with ivy-encrusted ruins. Losing ourselves among the crumbling stone and hidden relics, it was our own gloriously private world to explore and we relished every inch of it. By the time we reached the point where the past met the present, it was already 30 minutes after our designated meeting time. We only had a few moments to observe the white pagoda wonderland as locals prepared it for an upcoming festival, before dashing back down the designated path. At our sputtered apologies, the pair good-naturedly proclaimed we owed them a beer before climbing back aboard. The day floated away with dazzling scenery, workshop stops and temples— broken up by an elongated lunch that kept our boatman partially amused by how much we enjoyed each other’s company and partially annoyed by our long delay. As we exited floating gardens of purple flowers and ripe tomatoes back into hut-lined canals that would eventually lead back to Nuang Shwe, I had one of those exquisite travel moments of being unable to believe I was truly there. Could this all be actually in front of me? Or was it all too perfect to be real? Uncharacteristically still, it felt like if I did so much as breathe too deeply the entire scene would shatter and I would be back in my old apartment, the soft glow coming from a television rather than fading daylight. This spell was eventually broken by a cold shower of droplets flicked on me by Patrick, which led to him owing me a beer, which led us all to a great many beers and laughs well into the night.
After a later night than anyone anticipated. I was the last of the group to trickle down for breakfast. Elise was on her way to arrange an upcoming trek into Kalaw and shouted over her shoulder that she’d meet us at the town market in an hour; oh and as punishment, it was my job to figure out the cooking class we’d talked about taking together. Awesome, organization… surprisingly enough, not my strong point lately. The Austrians went to grab a few things from their room and ignoring my new task, I started chatting with a girl at a nearby table. She had just expressed an interest in also taking a Burmese cooking class when as if on cue, this guy Brian (former Peace Corp volunteer in Africa, current lawyer in Brooklyn) who I’d met in Hsipaw a few day earlier, dragged through the gates fresh from his 3 day trek. Hugs and a brief catch-up later, he announced it was naptime and asked if I was into taking a cooking class with him that evening; he had booked a private one but would love if more people could join. Bingo. With sad farewells to the Austrians before they caught a night bus to, Elise, Brian, Sue and I set out to make some of our favorite Burmese dishes from a husband & wife instructor team— who in addition to being amazing cooks also happen to be two of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and enjoyable people I’ve had the good fortune of meeting. Once the meal full of great food and conversation had ended, I inquired where I could find a folklore book they had recommended. “Oh,” he replied “ turn right at the opposite end of the market and the store is a few minutes from there. Next to the roller rink.” The roller rink??? Brian and I exchanged glances, as we’d chatted earlier about hometown hotspots and skating had featured prominently in both of ours. Oh yeah, this was definitely going to happen. Sue and Elise opted for an early night but Bri and I practically sprinted to the other end of town, quickly selected books and bolted to the rink. Stares directed at the only white people to maybe ever be there? Check. Garbage bags donned by all in place of socks? Check. Apple Bottom Jeans being blared in Burmese? Check check. It was glorious. Never in a million years could I ever have predicted this being one of my activities in Myanmar, but it was definitely a memorable one.
When dawn broke it was back to the lake with Sue and Brian, following the rotating market to a further location devoid of tourists. As soon as the boat approached our destination, we knew it would be a special experience. Silver and golden spires glinting from a mountaintop like a fairytale castle immediately captured our attention first, with the vibrant village activity coming into focus soon after. Not even the thick mud mattered as we traipsed through the colorful scene with awe and appreciation, our eyes devouring bright headscarves, exotic food and fresh produce. This was matched only by the wondrous display of pagodas we meandered through afterward, mystical in every sense of the word. Being in this tiny untouched village is something I’ll always treasure. Being there with two such companions made it perfect. Brian and I had already bonded and with our close proximity in the States, seeing each other again wasn’t a question. But of all the things we did that day, including pottery throwing and boat building, getting to know Sue was certainly up there. She also comes from an advertising background and felt like the components of her world were causing the walls to close in. Ditching a job, flat and fiancée in London to hop an Asia-bound flight, months later she’s feeling much more at peace but unsure of how to proceed long term. Though questioning who she is and what she wants, I find her to be someone who should never change a thing. Fun, outgoing, smart and introspective, her presence is simply a brightening force that infuses everything around her. We’re pretty same-same when it comes to traveling, especially in regards to interacting with those outside our familiar realm. Throughout the day I was heartened to watch her spontaneously hug old women and tell each how beautiful she is and happy to join her carry wares for the children or dance to a shy young man’s ringtone. While I returned home just two weeks later she’s still out there in search of whatever it is we’re all looking for, discovering more and more things to run towards and less to run from. I think of her often and know wherever she is, she’s getting closer to finding it. To the beautiful blonde girl who lights up every room, remember what you told me: everyone has the capacity to feel complete.