A Place Is What It Is

Posted on 14 March 2017

Alaska in winter. Skeptical and bemused expressions acknowledged my plans. “What will the temperature be? Will there be any daylight?” Interesting questions and yet, the answers don’t matter.

My friend alerted me to an airline ticket sale to Fairbanks, where she lives. I could get cheap tickets through February. So, I went when I could go and I was glad. February is a reality. Winter in Alaska is a longer reality.

The point is: I’ll go at any accessible time.

The corollary is: I want to see a place for what it is, not what I want it to be.

Of course, everyone has a mental filter through which their impressions fall. What is called reality is only a part-truth, for no one can encompass a whole place, and its everything. But still, I’m not waiting for a place to suit me. I will suit myself to the place. And in this case, borrowed jackets upon jackets and a wonderful host simplified this process. I was shown Alaska in February. When the timing is right, absolutely, I’ll see it in summer too. It’s just that anytime can be fun and interesting, if you let it be so. What I’m saying is: Abolish constraints.

Snow Trees Low Sun

Snow shapes glided beneath the wing of the plane as we descended. I followed an Alaskan Senator off the plane. My friend greeted me and showed me the bears (taxidermied) in the airport lobby. We crunched over the packed snow parking lot to her car. And then we went to a First Friday art show on microbes.

Awareness of microbes is important, and the cold is too. Quite a lot lies under our feet in broad swathes of the earth, trapped in permafrost. Which is melting. Representations of some of these no-longer-captives hung on the walls. There was also a partially decomposed shirt enshrouded in glass. And stuff to do with mushrooms. Despite having to weave my way through the crowded rooms, consider me fairly impressed.

Fairbanks Bar Dogs

The adventure switched gears. First, a visit to a local distillery, which was hosting a firefighters’ auction-art show (where we laughed at my friend’s art). Second, to a dive bar, complete with bar dogs who hung out on the porch. One in particular especially wanted in, just to socialize. Third, to a drag show. It was packed and I observed the observers (and who could help but notice the great queens?). A woman in a gun rights shirt enjoyed the show a row in front of me.

The night ended with a drive up a dome (as in, a rather large hill). I stood on the edge of the road in the snow, half sunk in, squealing about the aurora overhead.

KatnissSnow Light ShadowsAlaska Winter Sunset

The next day, I clumsily stepped into skis for the second time in my life and shuffled along with my friend, her brother, and her dog for about ten miles. The snow positively sparkled, refracting the low sun around us. Trees drooped heavy with snow. We skirted moose poop. The sun disappeared on our way back to the car but the moon was bright, and headlamps illuminated the tracks in front of us. I had stayed warm enough while skiing, but was eager to get into the Chena hot springs as our headlights cut a path through the darkness on the way there. My friend and I cautiously galloped through the frigid hall to the hot springs, and sat in the water as soon as we could. Steam rose around us, and my hair turned white once again. The trees lining the spring were entirely encapsulated with frost. Some lamps shone through the steam. We floated through the mist, dodging preemptive Valentine’s celebrations, doing a lap around the pool. And then I was too hungry and thirsty to endure the heat much longer, so we showered off and went to the resort restaurant where I easily ate all that I was served.

Trans-Alaskan PipelineGold Dredger

The following day was back in the city, visiting friends and cafes and downtown Fairbanks and an open-air museum and the Trans-Alaskan pipeline and an old gold dredger. Lest one think you must hide away the whole winter, let our putzing around show that’s not the case. We ended the day sitting in a hot tub waiting for the aurora. A faint green stripe was just visible across the sky. I jumped naked into the snow a couple of times, but that’s just me.

I couldn’t leave Fairbanks without having some Thai food (it’s legitimately a thing: Fairbanks has a relatively sizable Thai population and a cluster of restaurants to follow), so we had that for lunch, before I passed my final few hours at the Museum of the North, waiting for my flight, and watched a short film on the aurora. Ready to go, I find out that snow in, yes, Seattle had delayed my flight by many hours.

Plane over the Chena River

I would fly out the next day instead, after getting in a morning ski over the frozen Chena River. A small plane kept flying overhead, waving at us in a plane way, dipping its wings. The sharply angled sun hit the snow and ice. Right before going to the airport, we drove up a dome and looked out over the land. Snow and trees and mountains. My snot froze and I trudged through the snow and beheld the land as it held me. This is real, and I am seeing it.

Alaska ViewAlaska View 2

A Storm in the Desert

Posted on 22 February 2017

I had never been here before. The excitement of the new sprung out at me and I sprung back. And a rabbit sprung near me as I plunged down a hill, exclaiming at each new variety of cacti that I saw. The sun was strong and light and in the distance the cliffs of Sierra del Carmen rose above the border.

Sierra del Carmen from Big BendBig Bend Funny Cactus

The cacti distracted me from the greyness approaching, but then I felt a raindrop in the desert. And another. And I covered my camera with my arms as best I could and galloped back up the hill toward our vehicles as the drops became steady and hard. We huddled in one of our cars as the steely blue sky swirled above us, and the wind rocked us, and the rain pelted the windows – and me, when I jumped outside to snap more photos and document, and feel, the turmoil.

Clouds Gather Near Elephant TuskCactus and Distant RainBig Bend Storm

Change is gradual, but it is perceived at a threshold, and hits us suddenly. The sky had been darkening, but I only saw the storm when the drops came.

Not long after, the rain eased back, the swirl in the clouds dissipated, and the sun began to set, sparking the sky alight with a new color palate. The shock was still in the air but things were steady again as the night, gradually, fell.

Big Bend SunsetBig Bend Nightfall

Borderlands

Posted on 18 January 2017

Ink, after drawn, can blur, but a pen can tear through paper. Borders are a human invention. At times, they stand in the way of geography. But like many other abstract human creations, they have great and terrible consequences.

I’ve passed through many borders. Some hardly seem to exist: you’re riding down a road and, at some point, unnoticed, pass over an invisible line. One country to another, passport still tucked away. Other borders are chaotic: long walks over dirt roads, popping in one building after another, unsteadily securing visas, customs forms, stamps. There are other borders, torn down borders, whose remains I have stared at: a concrete wall which held a no man’s land, crosses line the grass today. Some borders kill slowly, some kill quickly, others just are – depending on your situation, of course.

Sierra del Carmen

I spent ten days gazing at Mexico. Much of the land I could see was Mexico. A striped cliff rose on the horizon: that was Mexico. And yet, I spent only a few hours in Mexico, just this despite spending a night within fifty feet of that winding border, an easily traversed river. People do illegally swim or wade across, bringing trinkets stateside, clinging to trust as their goods lay unattended by trails, next to a money jar. This money goes back to a village of about two hundred people, where half of the homes only recently acquired solar electricity thanks to the federal government of Mexico, where there are only a few telephones. This village is Boquillas.

In a way, Boquillas is one of the lucky ones in the global power game. Santa Elena and San Vicente also lie across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. All three villages formerly had informal crossing spots. And then, thousands of miles away, two towers were felled and a curtain came down indiscriminately.

Boquillas from the States

These three villages are incredibly remote – even relative to each other, given the abundance of mountains and the dearth of roads. From Boquillas, one has to travel 150 miles on oft-unpaved roads within Mexico to get gas. Just across the border, in Rio Grande Village, there is a gas station and a small convenience store. Though no bridge spans the river to Boquillas, goods could – and would – be ferried across by boat. And there was tourism, national park visitors checking out the two restaurants in town, facing each other across the dirt road running through the center. Men from Boquillas even made up an international wildfire fighting squad, Los Diablos. For many decades, the border had been hazy. We drove the River Road, our guidebook pointing out the ruins where a Mexican goat herder had made a little house, where a Mexican family lived.

The border crossings to Boquillas, San Vicente, and Santa Elena all closed in 2002. Suddenly, not just convenience, but necessities, livelihoods, were severed. As I said, Boquillas was lucky in a way one should not have to be lucky. The village population halved, its income largely sustained by some daring and innovative souls, but in 2013 the crossing reopened. The village stuttered back. San Vicente and Santa Elena remain off-limits to those who would not violate the law and take a little swim.

Rio Grande in Big Bend

To cross to Boquillas, this is what you do. Wednesday through Sunday, from 9am to 6pm, you can enter the U.S. Port of Entry Building. A national park ranger explains what you cannot bring back to the states (alcohol, plant or animal parts) and then you exit the side of the building, to the river’s edge. There is a little rowboat, which is ferried back and forth under the sun by a Boquillas man, working against the current. After the one minute boat ride, you can ride a cute burro – or, to make faster time, walk – under a mile down the dirt road into town. And there you are. Souvenir stands are scattered about, where you can purchase wire figurines, hats, bracelets, and tortilla bags embroidered with the town’s name. At least one of the restaurants, and probably the other, serves a strong margarita if you don’t want to check out the one bar. It takes just a few minutes to walk the length of the village, its brightly painted buildings beckoning you further and further. Oh yeah, there’s a Mexican immigration point too, in the village, but sometimes it is closed. We almost missed it as we walked by.

Boquillas Crossing

To cross back into the States, you take the rowboat again, showing your ticket stub from the first ride you purchased. We spoke (or in my case, verbally stumbled) in Spanish with the man rowing us across, Ben explaining it had been well over a decade since he’d last visited, prior to the border closing. It was very hard, the ferryman sighed, it’s so good now that the crossing is open again! Feliz Año Nuevo, we wished as we parted, though internally my stomach coiled: new year, new president… new wall? Not so feliz, really. Scrambling up the riverbank, we queued up to re-enter our country. The park ranger searched through our bags, ascertaining my pill bottle was mine, comparing the label to my passport. Then we scanned our passports at a kiosk and spoke on the phone to a U.S. border agent located in El Paso (irony lies in the name) to be re-accepted into the United States.

Let me reiterate: I scanned a passport. About two thirds of Americans do not have passports, nor do many of the residents of Boquillas. The border is happily reopened but, unlike before, this specific form of ID, and this form only, is required to cross, leaving a smaller pool of tourists who can enter Boquillas, and a smaller group of Boquillas residents who can easily cross for something so simple as purchasing a can of gasoline.

Boquillas, MexicoBoquillas Dog

 

Boquillas is, for now, rebounding. It is known what a border closing can do, however, and the two villages further down the river are still bent under the impact. All this, when really it’s a short swim dividing us, nothing more. But again, for now. I will testify that a wall across the Rio Grande, cutting through canyons, would be a foul and unnatural thing indeed. Just as is drawing a line in the sand that dictates who shall receive, and who shall be barred.

I ate my bean tacos in Boquillas. My passport was in my purse. I could flit back and forth, scattering my money as I went. Really, I am the lucky one, for whom borders generally mean inconvenience rather than a question of survival in my home, procurement of goods, income, even life. I know I am one of the few. We make it so. Borders aren’t real until we make them so. And then they may be as real and hard as a wall with your face smashed up against it as you struggle to breathe.

A Year of Washington Hikes

Posted on 11 December 2016

A beautiful thing about living in Washington is the myriad hiking possibilities. One can head to enormous mountains, temperate rainforest, beach, or dry canyons – there are endless options. Living in Seattle means I can enjoy the cultural city life without giving up on outdoor activities. In fact, outdoor recreation is emphasized more here than in many more rural places I’ve lived. This year, I both cross-country skied and snow shoed for the first time, hiked quite a bit, camped several times, and collected mushrooms and berries. The following is a summary of the hikes I took this year – hopefully they’ll give you some ideas, whether you live nearby or are visiting.


Paradise, Mount Rainier

Hiked in February. Variable distance.

Driving to Paradise

This one requires tire chains to get up to Paradise, but it is worth the hassle. We rented snowshoes in Ashford and tramped around on the trails near Paradise for a few hours. The weather fluctuated between snowy and mostly sunny. Mount Rainer was reluctant to peek out of the clouds, but even so, we had amazing views. There were quite a few skiers enjoying the mountainside as well.

Snowy Riverbed near Rainier On the Way up Mount Rainier Mount Rainier Hiding

Pipestone Canyon, Winthrop

Hiked in April. Variable distance.

Balsamroots

I was totally enamored with Winthrop after first visiting it autumn of last year. We returned for a weekend, when the yellow balsamroots were rioting all over the hills. On our hike we saw magpies, lizards, and – eek! – a rattlesnake. We also traversed through areas that had been burned in wildfires the year before. The next morning, we went hot air ballooning, but that is another story.

Pipestone Canyon Rim In Pipestone Canyon Road in Winthrop New Trees

Cape Flattery, Olympic Peninsula

Hiked in May. 1.5 miles.

Cape Flattery

We took a weekend to camp by Lake Ozette on the Olympic Peninsula. On Saturday, we drove out to Cape Flattery, where we took a short hike to the point. Alas, we spotted no puffins. However, we had fun with the crabs galore on a nearby beach we stopped at.

Olympic Sunset Cape Flattery Lighthouse Olympic Seashore Olympic Crab

Snow Lake, Snoqualmie Region.

Hiked in July. 7.2 miles.

Snow Lake Forest

Snow Lake is relatively close to Seattle, and as such, it’s pretty crowded. My friends and I left in the early morning to beat the rush. Our views of the lake we obstructed that morning by dense fog, but that lent its own atmosphere. On the way up to the lake, we still saw some beautiful views of wisps of cloud stretching over the tree-lined ridges below.

Snow Lake Fog

Skyline Divide, North Cascades

Hiked in August. 9 miles.

Flowers Atop Skyline Divide

The Mount Baker area has some of the most incredible hikes – not to mention our go-to camping spot – and Skyline Divide is a gem. The ascent is more than worth the subsequent view, especially when the wildflowers are in bloom. Just be sure to bring plenty of water, since the only source at the top is snow, if present.

Hiking up Skyline DividePath on Skyline DivideFunny Flowers on Skyline DivideMore Skyline Divide FlowersWhite Flowers White Mountains, Skyline DivideSkyline Divide View

Lake Valhalla, Central Cascades

Hiked in September. 7 miles.

Flowers and Lake Valhalla

So many berries! Blueberries, huckleberries, raspberries galore; you might not even need to bring your own snacks. Here is a warning, however: at the split in the trail, turn left toward the lake rather than continue toward the right like we did, which added a few miles to our hike. No matter, because there were more berries down this less-trafficked path. After correcting our error, we made it to the gorgeous lake.

Lake Valhalla from Above Leah and Ben and Lake Valhalla Lake Valhalla

Ptarmigan Ridge, North Cascades

Hiked in September. 9 miles.

Ben and Donna on Ptarmigan Ridge

I thought Skyline Divide was my favorite hike until we did Ptarmigan Ridge. Wow. No matter where you are on the hike, the views are stunning. If you’re lucky, Mount Baker will make an appearance. The day we were there, the weather shifted from light snow to sun. There were still snowy patches along the hike – the accessible window for traversing this one is brief. The hike itself is a good distance: about nine miles, round trip. A lot of people turn around early, where the hike rounds Coleman Pinnacle, but I recommend going all the way to the plateau where the Portals (rock formations) can be seen. Beyond that, the trail becomes more difficult to follow and requires mountaineering skill, so we turned back. Happily, as we made our way out, Mount Baker briefly came into view. Bonus: there were tons of tasty huckleberries along the trail, and I collected and ate quite a few toward the end of the hike.

Funny Things on Ptarmigan Ridge Hiking Ptarmigan Ridge Weathered Tree, Ptarmigan Ridge Ptarmigan Ridge Pano Mount Baker from Ptarmigan Ridge Huckleberries on Ptarmigan Ridge

We already have hikes saved in our Washington Trails Association account for next year. It can be difficult to choose between an old favorite hike and a new adventure (or skipping the grand views and diving into thicker woods for mushroom hunting), but having the choice is a great thing. Happy trails.

Me and my Mushrooms

Glimpses of Slaughter and Silence

Posted on 20 November 2016

There was a wall before me. I ran my hands along it. I peered over it. I spent months perched on top, dangling my feet over the edge, observing. I scraped my elbows and palms, gathering glimpses at foreboding pasts and awful alternative presents, collecting calluses.

The wall is cracking beneath my palms.


Genocide seems far away. Even when standing on its grounds, an inexperienced mind, sans memories, isn’t elastic enough to fully accept this truth. When I was there, I tried, I really did. I looked at everyone my age and older: Which side were you on? What memories do you hold in your body? Around me, motortaxis zipped by.

Rwanda truly felt safe to me. Reconciling pleasant Kigali with what I knew happened less than two decades prior was an exercise in futility: they were two different cities in my mind, the real one where my body stood, and the imaginary one I read about. Those who passed by me on the sidewalks had stepped in both cities, but I couldn’t understand, only wonder.

Kigali Genocide Memorial

Please do not step on mass graves

Further south, in Burundi, the past felt more tangible. The poverty and desperation seeped through the streets and my presence there, holding more of value on my person than the average local makes in a year, seemed incongruous and wrong. Tension shimmered in the air, but from what of all things, I could not say.

Lake Tanganyika placidly stretched into the distance before the capital. Teenagers kicked a ball around, but for the most part, beachgoers were sparse. I looked at the water: How many bodies lie in this lake?

Lake Tanganyika

But still: my feet in the sand. Laughs and goofy dance moves exchanged in a nightclub between our mixed posse of travelers, expats, and locals. But, the streets, for the most part, were empty after dark.

“In order to go on with our lives, we are always capable of making the ominous into the merely strange.” – “Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder

Back in Kigali, at the Genocide Museum, I diligently read through every single placard. The questions to ask are “why?” and “how?” There is a struggle to truly comprehend such horror; the mind does not want to encompass it. Westerners like me often brush such horrors. “Africa,” is a sad explanation, and a flawed one. In the Genocide Museum, there was an exhibit on other genocides, with pieces on the Balkans and on the Holocaust.

Stillness doesn’t mean forever. Stillness may just be an eye in the storm of what humans do.


Germany! Berlin! So hip, so European. Let me amend: European in the best and the worst ways. Our guide led us through Prenzlauer Berg, relaying stories from the East German years of his and his friends, their younger lives. In Alexanderplatz, a display had been set up marking the twenty-year anniversary of the fall of the wall, which was approaching. Our guide pointed out some of his friends in the photos of protestors.

Berliner Mauer

Germany. Berlin. Split in two countries, not so long ago. People are quick to bring up Hitler, the ultimate villain. And sure, although the scale of evil becomes a cliff, and in the abyss are far too many malevolent souls. After Hitler were the Stasi, for decades cowing millions into a subdued acquiescence. If Nazism isn’t recent enough to spark trepidation, this should be.

But my fear, at least, does extend back. I can look into the eyes of a friend and heartbreakingly know, Nazism is in his blood, though far from his heart. But is the divide so clear for all? Just today I read a comment by someone talking about their Nazi grandparents, the most mannered people one could know. Do I stare at reconciliation, or silence? Or both? And where does the line fall? Are modernity and social compacts as entrenched as they oft feel? Who has bought in and who is opting out? Who has forgotten, who looks away?

Potsdam Synagogue Memorial Plaque

On this site stood the synagogue of Potsdam’s Jewish Community. In the night from the 9th to 10th of November 1938 it was plundered and destroyed by the fascists.

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

The story of modern Europe is one with as many chapters on tyranny as freedom. Lest we forget.


Tyrannical pasts are not always condemned, populations do not always agree, “we’ll do better this time.” I lived with a woman whose father was sent to the Gulag, and outside of our apartment I walked by women of the same age holding up portraits of “Stalin, our hero.” I flipped through a guest book in the State Museum of Political History of Russia. There was no consensus, but rather a divide that will not be bridged. Half: “Stalin won the war for us.” Half: “Stalin murdered millions of us.”

Velikii Novgorod War Memorial

War memorial in Velikii Novgorod

Lubyanka

Lubyanka

If you don’t coldly look at the past, it more readily shapes the future. “I don’t bother with politics, ugh,” is a common pronouncement from both Russian and American friends. One can look away, which is often the same as compliance. In Russia, it’s a tactic held for survival, I know – but does it lead to that?

“Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.” – Quotation in Anna M.’s story in “Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich
Saint Petersburg House of Soviets

House of Soviets, Saint Petersburg

USSR State Library

State Library of the USSR in the Name of Lenin. Statue of Dostoevsky.

Ghosts are not dead. I lived with them and their pasts and in those months a howl formed within me. How? It happened and it happens and I want to spit back at the platitudes relentlessly panting about the goodness of people. If people are good, why did my hosts witness a city starve to death? If people are good, why was one’s father sent to his death, after escaping it at the front? If people are good, why do they walk on the streets ignoring this all? And, even though the past can be shaken off, how is it possible that we shake off the present?

Nazi Grafitti in Pskov
“What do I think of people? When it comes down to it, people aren’t good or bad, they’re just people, that’s all.” – Daughter of Ludmila Malikova in “Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

Russia and the U.S., at their extremes, reach out to one another.

Lenin with a Hole in His Butt

My Russian friend, who is not in Russia because she is not safe in Russia, smiled bracingly at my tears. Yes, Trump is very bad, she told me. But, you see, at least you have a history of civil society, of democratic institutions. Do something, I always feel better when I am taking action, she urged. She would know. It will be an interesting time, she laughed pointedly. I take heart in the fact she is still able to laugh.

Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

Fear is a fickle current. It, with hate, cannot be consistently guided. There is no guarantee as to who will or won’t be swept away. Closing your eyes only prevents you from seeing just when the wave will hit you. Brace yourself.

“I know what it looks like when freedom falls into inexperienced hands. Idle chatter always ends in blood. War is a wolf that can come to your door as well.” – Gafkhar Dzhurayeva in “Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

I keep my eyes open. I no longer examine a past over the wall, but gaze at a version of a future before me. Rubble already lies at my feet.

Yangon Trains II

Too Briefly, Yangon

Posted on 18 October 2016

The roads were wide and the buildings were tall. Our taxi circled roundabouts with traffic. After the hills of Shan State, Yangon was big and hot, but exciting. As our driver took us from the airport to our hotel, we sped by malls and apartments on the rise. He pointed out Inya Lake as we drove by. “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi lives there. You know her?”

Less than two months prior, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had won a supermajority of seats in Myanmar’s parliament – a rapid change given that she had only been released from fifteen years of non-consecutive house arrest at the end of 2010. Dissidence had been brutally crushed over decades of military rule, but now, our driver was regaling us with how happy he had been to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi. A former student of mine, a former refugee from Myanmar, had just recently been able to return home for the first time in many years. The country had been reshaping itself, and, given that the NLD opposition had dropped their prior support for a tourism boycott, there we were. The flowers our driver draped over the rearview mirror swayed back and forth.

Yangon Trains Yangon Trains II

We walked from our hotel to Bogyoke Aung San, a large market. On the way, we squeezed between street vendors selling books, t-shirts, fruit, keys, nearly everything. We had seen Aung San Suu Kyi calendars and NLD flags already, scattered about in different towns, but Yangon flourished with a wider variety of political merchandise, including bags and t-shirts. Admittedly, a thrill surged through me to see what I knew was a shift, though a yet incomplete one. Discussions with my former grad school classmates and students, refugees, rang in my ears, and I grasped at the difference.

Even before these discussions, before being taught how to properly pronounce Aung San Suu Kyi’s name by a patient classmate, I remember sitting in my undergraduate library with the New York Times in my lap, reading rising death counts as the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis unfolded. Myanmar’s junta delayed and blocked international aid, and likely underestimated the damage and death toll. The cyclone, the country’s worst natural disaster, swept through the Irawaddy Delta and past Yangon, leaving floating bodies in its wake.

And now, a contrast of mossy and run-down colonial buildings and rising new construction flanked us, as vendors sat by their variety of wares in the heat. We headed into Bogyoke Aung San itself, wandering through its different stories and divisions: fabric, lacquerware, gems. I avoided the latter, as mining is a source of revenue for the government. Signs hung at each shop, declaring official license. Instead, we bought paper mache owls at a stall near the food court.

Yangon Streets Night in Yangon

We walked back toward our hotel as the air cooled and the sky darkened. Food carts had popped up and we eyed them as we walked by, stopping for dosas and fried chick pea balls and chips and a smoothie as we circled the blocks surrounding our hotel. Lanterns strung across the street had been lit, and a crowd gathered to hear a monk speak.

The next morning, we were back wandering the roads, this time down toward the ferry terminal along the Yangon River. I realized the streets seemed different to me because there were full of cars, rather than motorbikes, which were banned in Yangon. After playing pedestrian and sweating in the heat, we ducked into a teahouse, this one Muslim-owned, for some really tasty sweet milky tea and pudding.

Yangon BuildingShwedagon Chinthe

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country, with the dominant Theravada Buddhism well intertwined with nat (spirit) worship. Just as Myanmar is diverse ethnically, it is religiously, with Christian, Muslim, and other minority populations. Though Buddhist monks helped lead the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests against the military government, there is also a Buddhist nationalist, anti-Islamic movement called 969, led by a monk. The Burmese government has not granted citizenship to the Rohingya Muslims and over a hundred thousand live in camps for internally displaced persons. The thousands of Buddhas I saw everywhere across the country were peaceful figures, but the religion is preferred by an oppressive regime and is sometimes weaponized.

From much of the city, it’s hard to ignore the sharp gleam of Shwedagon paya, the country’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda. The enormous gold stupa is hard to look at in the sunlight. Even so, in the middle of the day, crowds of people – the minority of us foreigners – skittered shoeless across the hot tiles from shade patch to shade patch under its bulk, visiting various intricate shrines. I can’t pretend to ascertain the meaning, it isn’t mine, but I looked at everything.

In ShwedagonBuddha in Shwedagon Kandawgyi Lake

We then wandered to nearby Kandawgyi Lake and cautiously walked across its precarious boardwalks, my sandals now digging blisters into my skin. After reaching my pain threshold, we got a taxi back to our hotel where I changed into shoes, and then I got a smoothie at a street stand to cool down. For those who wonder about my lax street food/drink consumption: I did get campylobacter, but consider it worth it.

That evening we then wandered through the lovely dusk, checking out restaurants and stands. As I investigated what, at first glance, appeared to be noodles in the cold light, the lady running the stand told me, “papaya!” I decided to give it a try, so she mixed up a salad for me, warning me through words but mostly gestures of the spice. And it was. I began to sweat, much to her delight and that of her daughter, and we laughed and joked back and forth. She also told me the names of the other dishes she was selling, which I surely screwed up when I later wrote them down. After finishing my tasty, but somewhat torturous, salad, we bought drinks and an ice cream for me at a small shop nearby. As we passed the salad lady, I showed her the ice cream, and everyone laughed.

On our last day, we took the circle train around Yangon, a bumpy and slow ride that gives a better glimpse of the outlying areas of town. A young man sat with us and tried out his rather good English, asking us about the news – North Korea’s bombs, satellites, cyber war. More agricultural areas and factories flickered by the window. We all jostled along.

For a late lunch, we stopped in another teahouse, and had more delicious tea, samosas, fried gourd, puns, puri with potato curry, noodles. The teenage boy servers rapidly carried orders back and forth.

Favorite Yangon Food Vendors

After final souvenir and gift gathering, and more walking, we went back to the salad stand for our last dinner. The owner and her helpers beamed at seeing me and, upon serving me a tofu salad, plopped a glass of ice water down along with my tea with a laugh, as they remembered my sweaty struggles the night before. I tried to convey I was leaving the next day and couldn’t come back. I took their photo, and we said goodbye.

Across the street, we got sweet pancakes with nut slivers and coconut for dessert, and then headed to our hotel to pack up. I wrapped my souvenirs and was sad to go. Activity carried on as the street vendors conducted their business. Birds flew amid the tangled power lines. The lamps strung about the streets punched their light into the darkness.


Some recommended reading on Myanmar

Pascal Khoo Thwe – From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey
Emma Larkin – Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma
Emma Larkin – Finding George Orwell in Burma
Thant Myint-U – The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma

Don’t Let Go

Posted on 1 October 2016

Soccer MatchJourney back to my erstwhile home, journey back over a decade. Emily jogs toward me grinning, my hand is outstretched. Her hand slaps mine, she moves on. As we run around, the darkness lowers upon us, the stadium lights flicker on. We regard each other, smirking in our minimal underarmour despite the cold, bumping and slapping into each other with camaraderie and a ferocity.

Often, she would leap at me from behind, grabbing my shoulders in a tough hug, her smile never quite overflowing into a laugh. The sports roughhousing was comfortable, but life is not.

She was killed slowly by forces I recognize but only weathered in small part. And her story is not mine to tell. Her story doesn’t lie interred, however, it plays out in melodies drawn back to the same theme. This: if you’re deviant from the supposed norm, if this deviance is askew in the eyes of the Christian parents, classmates, teachers, then comments are made about you and your kind, then you’re threatened, then you’re beaten, then there’s something wrong with you and you can’t escape this feeling nor this place and there’s this thing that can make you feel better and it wraps its tendrils around you and no matter how far you run, no matter how hard you drag yourself away from the rooted stem, it pulls you back, and then you’re swallowed into the soil, and that is that.

Except, after, voices above say the words “community,” and “love,” and “prayers” and these words are shouted out as a projection, bouncing off each other, to reaffirm the illustration, this is who we are. Except under words, there are actions, and it’s too late. There is no mirror facing the small town, engraved at the top of its frame with the question “and what did you expect?”.

Prayers can kill, and surface bruises leech into the heart.

Emily jogs toward me grinning, my hand is outstretched. Her hand slaps mine, and I don’t let go, and I take her with me.


There are no LGBTQ youth organizations where we grew up. If there is one in your area, I would encourage you to support it.

An Infiltrating Soft Light

Posted on 30 August 2016

We stepped into a small concrete and corrugated metal shelter just off the rutted dirt road. I sat down and bent forward slightly; some digestive issues had presented themselves that morning, a couple of hours prior. Our guides dipped a tin cup into a pot of water for road wayfarers and took some sips. I took a few gulps from my water bottle. Then, we all shouldered our packs and trudged onward.

The road veered to and fro, switchbacking up the steep hillside. Periodically we’d cut upward on pedestrian paths, shortcutting the curves. I grabbed the fabric of my elephant pants which weren’t particularly well-fitting on my thighs for the steeper climbs. We dripped sweat. Frequently we’d hear the telltale chugging of a trucktor making its way, those chimera vehicles made of old truck bodies with tractor engines affixed to the front. We were amused every time they drove by. And despite my abnormal physical discomfort, and the thus-far solely uphill climb, I was enjoying the walk. As I do, I kept finding myself speeding up into a quick rhythm as my surroundings drifted by, a comforting tunnel.

Trekking out of Pindaya

We stopped for lunch at See Kyat Inn village. Our guides cooked for us in a couple’s kitchen. On the patio, the woman sifted through beans. We sat near, alternating between the sun, which was hot, and the shade, which was cool enough to warrant a hoodie. When our guides beckoned us upstairs to eat, we were presented with quite a nice – and large – meal: fried noodles with vegetables and avocado. I was disappointed that I couldn’t stuff myself, instead cautiously eating a normal portion.

The last couple of hours of walking weren’t steep. We had reached the top of the hills, passing through tea farms and blossoming cherry trees into scrubbier green patches. As we strode along, we passed a guy washing something in the parallel stream. Our guide went and bought some. Indian leeks, he told us. Soon after we crossed through a field and then below we could make out our destination: Yasakyi, a village which shared its name with the pointy mountain it sat under. The sunlight shone softly above, not yet having ducked down behind the hills encircling the village valley.

Yasakyi Monastery

We were shown to a corner of a room in a monastery where we placed our packs by our bedding on the floor. Then, while our guides began cooking, we wandered around the grounds. An old lady came up to us where we had sat, motioning that we were sleeping in the monastery, and, pointing, she sleeps in her home right nearby. We smiled and nodded and she beckoned, come, come. So we followed. We knelt into her home and sat on her floor while she began making us tea. The boiling water spewed steam into the dark room, which swirled around us before escaping out the window. The woman brought a bag to us: dried tea leaves. For us? I gestured. Keep it, keep it. We sat and drank three cups of tea, just smiling back and forth. Then, a guide poked his head in, along with a German couple he was leading. They were staying one night at the old woman’s home before heading back to Pindaya. Please, tell her thank you from us, we asked. She’s deaf, the guide said. So we smiled and drank some more tea before gesturing we better get back to the monastery. We made our way back out into the dusky light, detouring around aggressive geese on the stairs.

Tea in Yasakyi

During our tea visit, we had acquired roommates: a Belgian couple who were quite nice and interesting companions for the next few days. One of our monk hosts also passed by and said a few words, those few that were mutually understood. And then we ate dinner together sitting around a low table covered in an impressive and tasty array of food: soup, rice, leeks, tofu, pumpkin, other vegetables. Sadly, I still wasn’t feeling well. We were also joined by the most polite cats I have ever encountered – though the table was no more than a foot off the floor, they didn’t jump into our meal. Rather, the smallest cat settled in Ben’s lap as we slowly ate.

Yasakyi

The night was cold and I didn’t sleep well – partially from the surface where we lay, harder than I am accustomed to, but mainly from anxiety and discomfort surrounding my intestines. After rolling around for some time, I strapped on my headlamp and ventured out into the night for the toilet. The dark was velvety and indifferent, impenetrable without my headlamp and not easily spread with it. Though turns out I had gotten up more out of anxiety than actual toilet-need, I hesitated outside. The dark was scary and pressing and full. But the stars. I tilted my head back and could see them all.

At 7:30 in the morning we unbundled ourselves from our blankets and made our way to breakfast. This time, the little cat sat in my lap. My stomach hurt so I ate lightly, again feeling remorse I couldn’t properly indulge in the nice cooking. And then we were off into the lingering dew, walking along a more meandering path that passed through more villages. Most of them are Danu villages, our guide told us. We peered around.

Ben in Pin Sein Pin

After a couple of hours, we stopped in Pin Sein Pin for lunch in another home. An older couple showed us upstairs and put some pillows on the floor, motioning we could rest. The man gave us a guestbook to sign and we flipped through, seeing who else had been by. He also handed us a note, which later a friend translated for me. It wished us and our fellow Americans health and wealth. The woman took a real shine to me, beaming and touching me, holding my hands. It was sweet; I could only smile back.

It was one final hour of walking to Kan Hla Kone, our final overnight stop. We were staying in another monastery. We dropped off our belongings and then sat down with the master monk who gave us tea and cookies. The guide who had arranged the trek for the Belgian couple dropped by to check on us, and then acted as a translator between us and the master. We asked about his life, about Buddhism, and we learned monks there can’t eat after noon (hence his smiling and waving on when we had offered the cookie tray to him).

After tea, we wandered the grounds in the long dusk. A crazy orange cat was leaping around. We managed to grab it and pet it, and then it liked us. Another monk walked by, smiling and waving. Every time we saw him, he was accompanied by a cat tangled up in his feet.

View from Kan Hla Kone

Contrasting with the evening, the night passed loudly, with wind smacking the metal roof. Nonetheless, I was fond of sleeping in the corners and corner rooms of these halls, with Buddha taking the center.

In the morning we had yet another heaping meal: tea, toast, fried egg and rice, lemon cake, and a fruit I could not identify – something like a shiny green apple whose texture and taste is like that of an Asian pear, and contains a pit.

And then: quickly downhill for those last few hours, full circle to Pindaya. As we reached the foot of the hills, we joined a larger road and cars, and trucktors, made their way past, kicking up dust alongside us. Covering this ground, I felt hastier, somewhat more anxious, knowing the destination was almost reached, we were approaching, almost done. There was more noise than there had been up in the hills, and the sun was sharper.

View into the Valley, Shan State

Where I Cling To

Posted on 8 August 2016

Ten years ago I saw an empty city. The sun still glowed above the roofs, despite the hour, and brightened the grey streets that hardly anyone trod upon, apart from me, my family, and my friend. We looked for food and all that was open was a McDonald’s. I think I ordered an ice cream for dinner. And yet, in the photos I’m grinning, my cheeks almost uncomfortably wide, flashing a thumbs up. It was juhannus, midsummer, and it was my first time in Finland, in Helsinki.

My first impressions of Helsinki were a bit weird, being based on the unusual reality of the city’s population clearing out for the holiday. Finland drew me in, to be sure, but my first visits were centered around Seinäjoki, some hours away. My heart was captured, by the people and by the country, but by the capital – not quite yet.

Tuomiokirkko, Helsinki

Eight years ago, I was again in an empty city. I moved into the flat I’d be sharing for the summer on juhannus and my friend and I searched all around for something to do. We settled on visiting a not-so-appealing club – the only place that seemed to be open – after we’d wandered in the nearby park, picking flowers for some old juhannus folk magic. We walked home under the dusky light sky. That night, I think we slept in one sock each, petals under our pillows. Welcome, again, to Helsinki. This time I stayed much longer and soon was a regular, trodding my path to and from Finnish class, to and from the city center, to and from the nearby park. I grew to know Helsinki, weaving through the tourists lingering over stalls at the markets as I powerwalked by way to class. I was enchanted. As the end of my stay came round, with an autumnal glint already hovering in the August air, I wanted to cling, to stay.

A month ago, I touched down again for the eighth time. The smile I bore definitely made my cheeks sore. By now, Helsinki is rather familiar to me, though there is always more—new and old—to explore. And I can assuredly say this: Helsinki is my favorite. I’m still clinging to it.

With Elina

It’s hard and it’s silly to separate a place from its people, but I’ll try for a moment, because not everyone knows my dear friends. And I think Helsinki would be captivating for me, even if I didn’t have them. I trust I’d make friends anyway, since it’s not terribly hard to get to know a Finn as a tourist (“What do you think of Finland?” – the ever-present question).

So what is it? I can’t quite put my finger on the glimmer that Helsinki lures me in with, but one element that has always struck me is the omnipresence of nature. In Finland’s capital city, you don’t have to try to find a park. And I mean a park with trees, with space. I took a run from my friend’s apartment and gave myself only one direction – head north – and I was on a trail through trees and raspberry bushes, I exited out onto quiet, slowly curving streets that deposited me in a park along the water, under the sun. Even on the busier streets, flanked by tall rows of gorgeous apartment buildings, with the trams gliding by, there’s greenery nearby. Helsinki is a capital city, with all of the bustle of cultural activities and business and buses – yet it’s calmer, more comfortable than most, maybe all, cities I know.

Pikku Huopalahti

Then there’s the Helsinki edge. World Design Capital and all – yes, that element is there, along with the requisite fashion pushiness to the edges, the modernity, and the classic all intertwined. The buildings themselves reflect this spirit I think: pushing up against each other, are squatter brown brick apartments and elegant, engraved structures with towers emerging from the roofs. I rarely find myself so simultaneously comforted by and fascinated by buildings. There is an understated elegance to Helsinki, and it’s on a more human scale.

Pietarinkatu

And there are the little things: the character of each neighborhood, small enough to traipse from one to another. The restaurant stalls popping up in groups – something new for me to try. The ease of getting around sans car, the lack of cars. The calm with more than enough activities to choose from. The glint of the summer sun on the blue water of the sea, which I plunged into after sweating in the sauna. The abundance of coffee – and the accompanying pulla. The rustle of the birch leaves in the breeze. The crispness that lingers in the air throughout summer. I could walk and walk through the city and the streets, and I do.

My friends embody this city for me in a way: they introduced it to me, I’ve experienced it through them. My love for the city is intertwined with my love for them. And yet, I am convinced that Helsinki really is a special place. After all, a place is made of its people and I know some great ones there. Under a blue summer sky – or even under a grey winter one – Helsinki enchants, excites, and calms, all at once. It’s a balm; it can give you the feeling that you need. Or at least, that’s it for me. I’ve been trapped in its net and allow myself to be lured in often – so I’ll be back soon enough.

Sauna Fish!

Just Ahead and Right in Front of You

Posted on 20 July 2016

Just walk down the road. Walk that way. And then turn right. The stairs are there.

Shwe Oo Min Chinthes

We had ascended through the hills to Pindaya in the early afternoon. In short time after checking into our hotel, we’d arranged a trek to leave the following morning. Eagerness was rustling beneath the surface of my skin as we set out to explore for the day.

The stairs we were directed to were longer and steeper than we thought. Straight up the wall of hills as Myanmar rises in the north. Sweat soon got the better of us.

The cave, however, swallowed us with a welcome coolness. We milled around with others through the winding passages, some wide, some very narrow, making our way between, underneath thousands of golden Buddhas. Their ages stretched from hundreds of years old to brand new. Some were worn and some gleamed. Some took their huge seats with pride and some hid in corners, limestone dripping around them. The dark and the golden sheen pushed on each other, neither quite winning out.

Pindaya Cave Hand and Buddhas, Pindaya Cave Buddhas atop Buddhas Golden Buddhas, Pindaya Cave

We descended from the cave back into town and wandered the streets, looking out over the lake, peeking at restaurants to ascertain which to try. We ducked into a popular one situated on a side road. Locals popped in and out with take-out orders. We were satisfied this was a good spot and pointed to photos on the menu to take our pick, rudimentary communication breaking into grins.

After some tasty fried noodles and veggies, we headed back to the hotel. Ben was still hungry and we dawdled by a little food cart on the way. A woman standing there gestured to what it was they were frying up – cauliflower! The woman managing the cooking plopped one down a fritter for us to try. We grinned, it was good! We asked for three more; she gave us six. She then tried to communicate the price to us and I accidentally overpaid by 50 kyat. When she pushed the bill back at me, I laughed and refused to take it – between a sample and extras, no! She giggled, getting a kick out of the whole thing. And really, those cauliflower were tasty.

Pindaya from the Hills

Point and smile. Hold out your hands. Exchange sheepish, genuine grins.