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.

Things That Are Shared

Posted on 30 June 2016

The early morning chill that had settled under our skin had dissipated, hastened away by two cups of delicious chai at a Nepalese restaurant during our early lunch. We now walked the glowing tan streets of Nyaungshwe, just peering around, wandering. By the canal I heard Russian, two men taking photos. In accented Russian I inquired: do you want me to take a photo of both of you? Fluently they responded: where are you from? They became enthusiastic when they learned I was from the United States and knew Russian through my studies. They were Oleh and Dima, from Ukraine. Oleh was working in Myanmar, but taking a little vacation. Dima was with him.

Their excitement bounded over: what are you doing tomorrow, here? Do you want to take a boat tour of the Lake with us? I awkwardly translated back and forth so Ben could have input. A teenaged boy approached us as we decided, sure, we’d tour with them tomorrow. This boy asked if we wanted to tour with him. Alright, we decided. We’ll meet here tomorrow morning. Bring warm clothes, said the boy. I repeated our meeting time in Russian to our new tourist buddies to be sure nothing was lost in the swirl of languages.

It was New Year’s Eve and we went to bed before midnight to be ready for our early start.

Fisherman on Lake Inle

Apprehension floated in us as we strolled to our meeting place on New Year’s Day. But there they were, our Ukrainian friends, greeting us eagerly. Especially Oleh. He quickly regaled us with his New Year’s antics: apparently he had played guitar at a bar until just a few hours before. He clutched his head and stomach comically for our benefit: “visky!”

Our guide, who I learned that, despite being a teen had already lead tours for four years, led us into his long boat. The Ukrainians began recording the goings-on immediately: apparently Dima was making a film. The boat’s motor roared to life, water sprayed, and we set off, perched on little chairs and swaddled in coats.

Village on Lake InleBoats on Lake Inle

The sky and the water were dark grey blue and the edges appeared smudged, unclear, wandering. The canal joined Lake Inle and we passed by fisherman with their giant nets. Streaks of light attempted to break into the haze. Mist settled over the water, clutching the banks, refracting the light. Oleh babbled behind me, alternatively telling me about the wonderful time he had working in Iraq and complaining about visky and the fact that he didn’t have some now. I laughed, my bangs flipping back in the wind from our movement.

After a time on the water, we pulled up to a village situated on stilts. Our guide brought us into a silk weaving workshop, where we were given tea (“visky!” says Oleh) and led around by a 16 year old girl who explained the entire process, from spinning the threads to weaving to washing. I clumsily translated her practiced words for the Ukrainians and then asked her about herself as we wandered the dim space. Obligation clung, and I bought a few pieces from their shop, a signal of thanks for opening up to us, for the guide girl’s obvious effort, for the fact that they probably rely on monies from boats of tourists like us.

Weaving Workshop Lake InleSilver Making Lake InleSilver Work Lake InleMaking Cheroots Lake Inle

We were brought to two more workshops: one where silver was made into trinkets and jewelry, and one where cheroots were made. The silverwork was impressive and the cheroots with honey and spices, I admit, had a lovely taste. And we were brought to lunch, where I had a nice tea leaf salad. Oleh declared his dish too spicy and had his much awaited viski instead. As we ate, and he drank, he taught us some Burmese, testing his phrases out on the amused server.

Below, back on the dock as we readied to depart, a cat lounged about. Lured by my obvious interest in it, some men picked it up and demonstrated, to my delight, how the cat had been trained to jump through their arms when held in a circle. The animals in Myanmar really are remarkable – all that I met, even the apparent strays, were friendly.

Jumping Cat Lake InleTemple Cat Lake Inle

Then to a temple. Buddhas has been covered in so much gold leaf they had been rendered into blobs. A sign declared, “Ladies are prohibited.” I, of course, scowled. Ben and I made our way outside where we drank lychee juice, played with another friendly cat, and chatted with our young guide. The sun had long since made its appearance and glared off the gold of the temple. My feet were warm and dirty on the tile.

Once the Ukrainians had been rounded up, we set off for Inthein. It was an add-on to the typical route, but why ever not? It took time to get out there, winding through water paths flanked by tall grass banks. But the time spent speeding over the water was deeply satisfying. Simply moving can produce happiness, magnified when movement is through new sights. Boats passed coming the other direction and tourists and locals alike waved. Oleh sang from his seat behind me.

To IntheinInthein Temples

Again we docked and Ben and I set off on a path that we hoped would take us to ruined temples. We found a friendly kitten instead. A child came up toward us and motioned for us to follow, bounding up a hill. We, suddenly feeling lacking in coordination relative to their agility, followed. And there we were: crumbled stupas overlooking the town below. We gave the kid some change and off they bounded again.

After surveying the scene from above, we made our way to more ruins. We observed from the perimeter, and I befriended a dog. This exploration had taken some time, so we set off back for the dock. Oleh had found some visky at a restaurant stall.

Inthein Dock

Happily, I sat back as we wound back through the channels. Our last stop was a monastery with ere-jumping cats. They no longer performed, but I wasn’t too disappointed, having had our own private performance by the cat on the dock. We pet some cats in the dark halls and then reentered the sunshine for our boat ride home.

Gulls flocked above us as Oleh pretended he had food in his hands, encouraging me to get good photographs. Join us for dinner tonight, they said, we’ll show you a great spot with local food. Alright, we said. We disembarked from our boat, Oleh and I continuing on with our standing joke in Russian: “Careful!” “The doors are closing!” The last line, taken from public transportation announcements, was sung.

Floating Gardens Lake InleLake Inle Gulls

We bid our guide goodbye. We arranged where to meet the Ukrainians for dinner. We walked back through the streets to our hotel. The day shone around us. My mind buzzed with it all.

That night, dark settled like a dim coat. We sat under the buzzing business lights with the Ukrainians. Oleh in particular regaled us about his country, about his home in the east of Ukraine. It is so beautiful, he said; I could see it tugging at him, far off in Myanmar. The war is very sad, he said, because my place is a peaceful one. There is a forest, and a river full of fishes, and in the morning when the sun peaks out there is a mist settled over the land. He ordered more visky and threw it back. Then, the Ukrainians walked us back to our hotel before hitting the bars. We went to bed, looking forward toward the morning, when the sun would peak out over the mist settled over Lake Inle.

To Be Light

Posted on 30 May 2016

It’s 5am and we’re speeding down the mostly empty road, our electric scooter’s headlight cutting a path through the dark. Intermittently, motor scooters speed by with a polite warning honk. I crouch lower behind Ben, shivering in the wind, while widening my eyes in search of our turnoff.

We found the correct location, scouted out on our wanderings a couple of days before. The temple we had planned on entering was locked, so we scaled a stupa across the way. Sitting on a ledge, we fiddled with our cameras and shivered as the black gave way to grey, illuminating the clouds overhead. The sky turned grey-blue, then patches of pink flared. To our left, hot air balloons appeared from behind one of the larger temples and we excitedly stared as they made our way across the sky, over the temple-spotted fields, in front of us. The chill of the misty air did not diminish the scene in front of us; indeed, it was inseparable from it. I was a witness to something beautiful in a place largely unlike where I came from. The differences pull at the mind, stretching it. Observe.

Gawdawpalin Temple, SunriseBagan at SunriseBalloons Begin, BaganBalloons over BaganTwo Balloons and TemplesBagan Morning Mist

After breakfasting, we wandered around Nyaung U. We stopped by the market, crowded with everything from purses to spices. I bought more elephant pants (half of them were gifts, okay?) from a young woman who happily told me this was her first sale of the day. Content with my goodies, we scootered back to the hotel. I was still antsy, however, so I decided to wrangle with the electric scooter myself.

Wobbling out onto the road, I got the hang of the accelerating after a few minutes and more calmly sped along the road. The busyness of the town center faded, and then I was alone, moving up a hill surrounded by brown grasses. A snake sped across the road. Every now and then, a scooter would come by in the other direction and its riders seemed surprised and amused to see an obvious foreigner off the common tourist pathways. They waved at me and I attempted to return the gesture without tipping over. Eventually, I turned around and traced my way back to the hotel, where Ben told me he’d be happy to lunch in 90 minutes. Off I was again, then, for 45 minutes out then back.

Feeling more confident on the scooter now, my bangs flipping every which way, I couldn’t help but smile as I again left Nyaung U. I felt adventuresome and free. More people waved as I zipped passed, and I grinned back. The road climbed up a ridge and I could see the mountains across the plain. Eventually, the road came to a toll and I turned around. Having spotted a side road on my way out, I resolved to make my way across its sandy depths (relative to my scootering skills) and see what it led to. It was a temple, of course. Squinting against the sun, I took a short break to look around before riding back.

Electric Scooter and Temple

This is why I usually don’t take photos on my phone. I couldn’t see the screen in the sun!

Bagan by Day

That afternoon, I scootered around by myself even more, out past New Bagan. When I pulled over to check the time, a concerned guy approached me, motioning to ask if I needed help. I waved him on with a smile. I stopped at a temple complex and, semi-chatting through facial expressions with a woman sitting by one of the entrances, gave her baby a little butterfly brooch that had been tucked away in my pocket before I headed away. The woman grinned back and made her baby wave. I had not expected the amount of smiles per capita that I witnessed in Myanmar. I passed many more as I made my way back to the hotel.

That evening, Ben and I scaled a temple to watch the sun set, marking the final hours of our time in the Bagan area. Soaking it all into my bones, we watched the sky flare from blue to orange to grey to black. We boarded our scooter to head back to Nyaung U for dinner. It was losing its charge and we dismounted, pushing it up over the small hills before coasting down on the descents, the wind blowing on my face. A lightness resonated inside me.

Dusk at BaganBagan SunsetGradient Sun over Bagan


Posted on 3 May 2016

Death fluttered beside me.

After heavily wading through waves, I climbed up onto the rocks. Routine walking was encumbered by annoyance. Smiles couldn’t penetrate me; no, I deflected them by turning away and retreating into my sullenness. The little, supposedly cheery banalities echoed around the cliffs like bullets. I backed into a cave and barricaded the entrance. Death cast its shadow. It was only right to sit within it.

After her death, the days stretched out long and grey. I wanted to return to Ohio again and again and again. I had been there to see her, and I had been there to bury her. It felt wrong to be separated from this place. And from the people! We had held each other, reaching, grasping, someone to hold on to, someone who knows, who feels the reverberations of loss ricocheting off of bones. In another home, I worked, I sat on the bus, I sat at home. I faced beige walls. All was dull, dull, dull, void of meaning, void of force.

She carried all of the force. It was a warm force. It was all of the care in the world, bundled into a soul. It shone through her wry smile. I could only grasp it by holding onto others, her others, but we were physically separated now. Five young women, in a row on a couch. “My beautiful girls.” Five young women, five different states. A man sitting beside me. Jokes leveled in our direction. Us, thousands of miles apart.

Sitting in that cave, everything was too quiet. Death had visited and I couldn’t fight anymore. She was taken and I placed a carnation over the dirt, over her ashes. Now, what could I do?

From the cave of my office, my apartment, to the mountain. Get out, feel something, something that’s not blunted. Unrelated emotions were all muted, and as right as that felt, it was also wrong.

Trees on RainierAscending to ParadiseParadise, Mount RainierTrees Snow MountainMount Rainier Hiding

It snowed overnight. At the base of the mountain, I spied a dusting, but at the top of Rainier there was a new, smooth blanket. I strapped on snowshoes for the first time. I crunched forward with the help of these implements, following in tracks, breaking them down further. Trees stood darkly around, marching over the landscape until it became too harsh and only sharp rock faces remained. I sat down in the snow. It surrounded me: a harsh and beautiful thing. Grey clouds spun overheard, replaced by blue skies, which were then usurped by clouds again, sprinkling down fat flakes.

The mountain just is. Severe, striking. It can hold you gently, and it can murder you. It doesn’t live, but it’s like life in that. It’s reality. It’s what you live in. I look at it, and I try to see it honestly, see it sharply, fight the good fight – but still be warm, still hold a power through a scoff, a laugh, a smile. Like she did.

I felt comfortable in the snow. I felt an openness I hadn’t felt in weeks. I felt an acceptance of two truths: rightfully never ending sadness and a benevolent strength.

Last night, I dreamt I was wearing something of hers. It was a warm, encompassing coat.

Another Lens

Posted on 18 April 2016

I tried to focus on Mandalay Fort, across the moat by which I stood. I couldn’t. I pulled the camera strap off from around my neck and switched to manual focus. Back on. I still couldn’t focus. The lens made uncomfortable clicks and skipped, the image relayed to my eye by little mirrors jumped from one kind of blurry to another. And thus I learned my go-to lens was broken. Luckily I had two others. Both are great in particular situations, but not quite as broadly versatile as my damaged lens. Disappointed, I buried the broken lens in my pack, swapping out its seat on the camera for the prime lens. Now I had one distance at which to gaze at the world through my camera; I had to look differently, physically moving myself to see more.

While in Nyuang U, we decided to visit Salay and Mount Popa. In the hotel’s common area, we befriended a funny Japanese guy who agreed to share a ride with us the next morning. So, we found ourselves bumping along in the morning chill, temples moving past our windows, as our driver carried us along the highway. The scenery shifted: it became hillier, greener, and oil wells began appearing, pumping in rhythm, their solid blackness and extending pipes running over the earth.

Salay MuseumTemple in SalayBuddha and Temples, Salay

We visited a museum in Salay. And some temples, as you do. I shuffled around, forward and back, as I framed little Buddhas and expansive, temple-dotted fields through my lens. I peered closely and then I stepped away to take in the larger scene. Everything pieces together. We got back in the car and more flashed by: banyan trees, oxen hauling huge piles of hay, roadside stands, tan fields. The road became more crowded and buildings less and less sporadically lined the side as we approached our next destination.

Road to Mount PopaMount Popa

Mount Popa juts out from the surrounding landscape, unmissable, unmistakable. If spirits live anywhere, yes, it would be here. We joined a few other foreigners, but mostly Myanmar people, as we shuffled barefooted up the 777 steps to the top of Taung Kalat. We sidestepped into rooms off the stairs, where people worship the resident nats, placing cash, fruit, flowers, and cigarettes by their sides. Monkeys darted around, lured by cones of nuts that people would hand off to them. At the top, the expansive country spread out below and around us: greenery dotted by villages, Bagan in the distance. Closer at hand, Buddhas and nats watched my cautious movements, avoiding the worst of the nutty mess on the ground with my bare feet, golden mirrors reflecting every which way, gongs sporadically gonging, flashes in the corners of my eyes as people bowed to the ground, the fabric of their clothes rustling. I could look closer and closer and the details wouldn’t end. I could expand the scene as much as possible and it wouldn’t cease to amaze. Neither version could I fully grasp in understanding; I could just look.

Myanmar OwlsBurmese ScriptBuddha with Fruit, Mount PopaA Nat of Mount PopaMonkey, Mount Popa

The soles of my feet ached from pounding the 777 step descent. The sun struck my skin and sweat formed in greeting. We three foreigners and our driver sat back in the car as we made the couple hour journey back to Nyaung U, politely honking as we passed other vehicles. Every now and then, we’d hit stretches of highway dotted by people, mostly women, standing or sitting on the side. I realized they were begging, hoping. Thus far, from Mandalay from Nyaung U, I hadn’t seen the really desperate poverty I knew the country contained. We stopped at a gas station that stood in contrast to the potholed road and the impoverished people alongside it: the interior glistened with a large bathroom, the cleanest I had seen.

Fruit and Flowers, Mount PopaA Nat with Cash, Mount PopaFood Stands, Mount PopaMount Popa's Monkeys

From afar or close up, I noticed discrepancies, contradictions, items of beauty and of mystery and of trauma. For now, I could just observe, take note, try to slightly unpack, learning all the more I yet needed to know to understand. These people, whose military had stripped the country’s people of wealth, of voice, surrounded me, almost all smiles. I’m trying different angles, different depths, in increments building what I can comprehend.

Endless, Expanding Returns

Posted on 1 April 2016

Some places tug.

This can be a problem: there’s a line strung between places known and unknown, and you can only set yourself at one point on this line. I stumble, here. I visit places for the first time and it only entices me to learn more. This year, in less than three months after returning from Myanmar, I’ve already read three books on the country. I visit a place again, and only get sucked in deeper. I studied abroad in Saint Petersburg, and years later returned to Russia by way of Irkutsk. This year, I’ve also read three books on Russia and keep scheming up adventures for far-flung corners. And then there’s Finland: I’ve been seven times and am looking forward to my eighth this July.

The more you see and learn, the more you realize there is to see and learn. Knowledge and understanding are infinite, and thus unattainable in completeness – and that just makes me want to gulp down more.

But there’s another variation of it, too. For me, Russia is untangling a massive knot. For me, Finland is reveling with dear friends in a kind of comfortable, beautiful belonging. And then, there’s a non-mental pull that I’ve learned can also come.

Winthrop Autumn TreesRoad to Mountains

Last Halloween, I visited the Methow Valley. Ben and I arrived in a cold rain. We hustled our belongings, bikes and all, into the hostel. And then the rain cleared and we cycled out and then the sun set and mountains shone with snow all around and the brush stood against the blue sky and I loved it. If I was learning, it was all emotional. There was no one around, except us on our bikes.

I suppose these tugs fall on a spectrum from intellectual to emotional. The Methow Valley falls toward the latter at this moment. Add this to the problem, then! Another place to return to, and another reason for it! It has oft been on my mind. At least Methow Valley is relatively nearby.

Ben Bike ValleyMethow Morning

So, I’m going back later this month.

Sun and Shadow

Posted on 24 March 2016

Alright, I’ll try to walk you through this dusty, lovely, sandy terrain. Even at this morning hour, the sun is high and sharp. I alternate between squinting and widening my eyes. There is a temple to take in every way you turn.

Bagan Temple Dog

We got up and had the standard Myanmar hostel breakfast: egg (fried or scrambled), toast with butter and jam, fruit (banana or papaya or an orange), tea, and coffee (the instant kind, some with milk and sugar added – Birdy brand was my favorite). Then, the smiley receptionist, his teeth spread so wide I couldn’t help but like him, showed us to our electric motorbike. I gripped Ben tightly from behind and we wobbled our way out onto the road, picking up speed. The town quickly turned to grass and shrubs stretching out. And the temples popped up.

Pick a path. It’s deep sand and you carefully negotiate your way through. You feel the dust sticking to your sunscreen, but you smile. These temples, some remodeled, many elegantly crumbling, sit by an overwhelming choice of ways. You want to see them all, but it’s impossible. The best thing to do is try to remember your route, going back to the temples you bypass, but you’ll get turned around anyway. But it doesn’t matter, because you’ll still see.

Bagan FarmingBagan CowBagan Temple in the Grass

We slowly rode and walked our way around, peering through the screens of locked temples or removing our sandals and stepping in to peer at the Buddha, or the place where he sat previously, now cracked and dirty. Our feet quickly became caked in a coating of grime as we removed our sandals again and again; we stepped carefully to avoid thorns and rat droppings. We disappeared momentarily from each other, blocked by mazes between temples great and small. As we approached one temple, two children ran up to us and offered to show us to the top. We followed them up a steep and uneven staircase that was more like a semi-vertical passage at the edge of the wall. I was surprised to come out on the flat roof of the temple, looking down at the golden land stretching out ahead.

There are more popular areas and temples, it’s true. Here the sand tends not to be so deep and there are vendors stationed outside the larger attractions. Women stand by the temples and introduce themselves as you approach, tailing you and interjecting to explain paintings on the walls, trying to earn a few hundred kyat. It’s a little overwhelming in these areas, but the temples are dark, cool, and calming inside. Inside every one, look for hidden passages to the top. Sometimes they exist. You peer into the brown-grey and see where the wall opens away.

Flowers and a Temple, BaganBagan Temples from AboveBirds and Temples, Bagan

We rode through Old Bagan; the road became more crowded. We stopped at a roadside stand for lunch and sifted our way through the condiments laid out on the table before us. “Myanmar food!” the restaurateur kept yelling out to passerby. After eating our curries and momentarily basking, we hopped back on the e-bike and began winding our way off the tarmac and down the sandy paths. Eventually we found a temple with no other tourists containing inner stairs that rose up to the flat roof. There we sat, fields and temples and trees and faraway hills expanding outward, away from our center.

You can visit these temples for days and still not cover the entire territory, see every monument. Some are whitewashed and majestic, with stairs ascending their outer walls, steep, several levels up. Some have been reinforced with metal strips. Others have locked entrances, are small, away from the more grandiose temples who command more traffic. And then there are the crumbling ones, red-brown bricks on the ground and moss growing in cracks. Many of these temples are old, old, old, dating back to the 11th century. They all hold their charm, even a command, over the landscape and over time.

Plain of BaganBuddha to Buddha, BaganSmoke and a Temple, Bagan

Sunset was approaching and we took off to find a temple roof to watch the spectacle from. After tromping through a field that a path petered into, e-bike in tow, and getting suggestions from a friendly vendor, we crawled up the stair passage to the roof of an old, slightly crumbly temple. We looked west at the red-orange sun, which slowly settled itself lower and lower, momentarily resting atop the hills before sinking out of sight. Camera shutters rustled around us; we participated in the chorus. Though the roof was somewhat crowded, a steady and fleeting sense of calm and awe settled over us, broken by a goofy vendor who declared, “shopping time!,” gesturing at the paintings he laid out on the stone. Everyone laughed.

Glowing Temples, BaganBagan SunsetRed Sunset, Bagan

Darkness is quickly falling now, and the streetlights are intermittent. The cool is settling in as well, after the heat of the day dissipates and abandons the plains. Speeding along the tarmac, clutching your e-bike, your dusty hair tangling itself in the wind, you could laugh again. Headlights and dark temple walls flash past. Everything mingles.

We dropped our e-bike back at our guesthouse and set off on food to one of Nyaung U’s streets crowded with restaurants. We settled on a Myanmar food place in the shadow of one of the temples. Lights were strung up overhead. Dust stirred in the street, illuminated by passing bikes and excited by footsteps. I tucked into my noodles, which were quite delicious – though I hadn’t met a dish of noodles in Myanmar that I didn’t like. Tourists and locals strolled past. Differences of time and place sat alongside each other, light smiles playing back and forth. Everything was, clashless.

Scratch at the Surface

Posted on 11 March 2016

About a month ago, I was sitting in a theater, surrounded mostly by fellow U.S.-Americans, all of us concentrating on the people sitting on stage: namely, Maria Alyokhina and Ksenia Zhivago of Pussy Riot, promoter Alexander Cheparukhin, and translator Mariana Markova. I had bought my tickets for this event something like half a year prior, and “the girls” and their witty, sharp, and compassionate answers did not disappoint.

Pussy Riot Poster

Pussy Riot: the name alone suggests a spectacle to native English speakers in its crassness. I’m sure some people came out of that curiosity, and others out of a genuine interest (and concern) for them. Others for sure came out of a Russia connection: studies, a friend, family. The level of enthusiasm and respect for Pussy Riot’s message was palpable, which I appreciated.

But, but, but. My senses were jarred quickly, when, after showing a shortened version of the documentary film, Act and Punishment, a question was posed to the girls. “Why is it that only young people are protesting?” I flinched; in the film itself there was not a dearth of older people. I know where this question comes from – but it contradicted what we had just seen.

“It’s because the people who are over 50 sit around and watch TV!” joked Maria, before adding that she was totally kidding, and that in fact, many of the most prominent activists, people they greatly admire, are from older generations.

But in response to the TV joke, I heard someone whisper behind me, “oh yeah, our media is like that here!” I suppressed an eye roll. I am far from a fan of mainstream U.S. media, but the degree of censorship, intimidation, and government influence over Russian media absolutely does not compare.

I am not what I would consider to be a Russian expert, but, fact is, relative to the average U.S.-American – well, I am. I speak the language conversationally, I studied abroad there, have done volunteering there, have Russian friends I speak to on a routine basis… I have a decent view of what is going on. But still, I don’t know it all. So the confidence that accompanied these, in my view, erroneous comments startled me.

It’s complicated, really. There’s this fact: using what you know as a point of reference can often lead you astray. But there’s this other fact: other people, other places, aren’t completely different, either. There’s a tightrope strung between assuming similar contexts and denying commonality, humanity.

I know this from traveling, from spinning around in confusion until I managed to make sense – or at least more sense – of what surrounded me, of what was certainly not like from where I came, but was not totally different either. You have to scratch at the surface, peel back the layers. Things aren’t what they seem but they’re not alien, either.

During a switch-up onstage, I rushed up and delivered a hello to Maria from a mutual friend and answered her enthusiastic question about said friend’s whereabouts before I had to dart back to my seat. Connections matter if you want to understand. Cultivation is key; circles must broaden.

The wit, ferocity, and strength of the girls and the other activists they talked about was flooring, all the more because of the context in which it sits. Almost two years in a labor camp prison. When they speak out, we should listen, and also make an effort to understand what really, really is facing them.

And, intertwined in all of this, is a fact that exists both here and there. What is simplest most often has flaws. What is easiest to grasp most often is devoid of crucial nuance.

Scratch, burrow – that’s how we’ll slowly embrace the right of it all.


Posted on 15 February 2016

The sun had yet to rise when our taxi driver dropped us off at the jetty. We scrambled down the stairs of cutout dirt, and made our way onto the ferry. Being the silly, adventurous, and curious people that we are, we bundled up and sat on the deck as the sun rose. After the ferry glided off, we were somewhat warmed by the coffee and tea that was passed out, accompanied by white toast.

Lifesaver OnboardTemples on the AyeyarwadyBuddha on the Ayeyarwady

I suppose it wouldn’t be Myanmar if temples and Buddhas didn’t pass by our sight. Boats made their way past us too, and as we drifted by each other, we waved quite genuinely. Everything moved by slowly enough to have a good look; from Mandalay to Bagan by ferry takes the whole day.

One of our stewards passed out veggie fried rice for lunch, which I was pleased with. I tested my very poor Burmese on him and learned a few words in return. We remained on deck, never getting quite cold enough to retreat inside. I read Harry Potter yet again. When I wasn’t reading, I was observing the waters and the shores, reciprocating waves with the other boatloads, large and small. The shores were dusty and the river cut along the banks. The only bad occurrence was one of my feet got sunburned. I also noticed a patch of floating water bottles which was so dense it almost seemed deliberate. But mostly I sat at peace and everything that we drifted past was new to my eyes.

Logs and TemplesBridge over the AyeyarwadyWalking the Ayeyarwady BanksBottles on the AyeyarwadyBoat on the Ayeyarwady

As evening fell we reached Nyaung U. Coming ashore we were greeted by taxi offers and hopeful book and pants sellers. We started negotiating with a tout, who upon realizing we didn’t exactly need anything luxurious, offered us a trishaw ride. Sure! Then we saw the trishaw: a side car attached to a rickety bicycle. Our driver stacked us and our luggage on and with an assist pushing the bike to a start, we were laboriously off. Again, everything new passed by my sight slowly, except when I had to keep my eyes on the road as we hopped off in order to surmount a hill. All in all, the ride was quite jolly in its desperation, and we gave the driver more kyats than bargained for. He seemed relieved we took our slow ride in stride, but I wouldn’t pass on this drifting and the chance to simply look.

Irrigation on the AyeyarwadyArriving at Nyaung U

Take it Away, Mandalay

Posted on 7 February 2016

Stepping out of the airport, onto the grey pavement, into the yellow sun, following our shared taxi driver—what else is there like this? Every time I blinked, my eyes were swallowing something new. As we rushed over the highway toward Mandalay, I looked around in every direction.

The buildings grew taller and taller, and vehicles became traffic, which became more chaotic. I loved it. At once I could connect sights with familiar places and drink in everything as all new. After dumping our bags in our hotel room, I was raring to explore the city that evening on foot.

Mandalay FortressMandalay Hotel View

Darkness fell, but only after we explored the blocks surrounding our hotel – up to the fortress and down along the streets. We ate dinner at a Shan restaurant, where a waiter kindly laughed and mimed I should chomp a dessert I had been sucking my tea through.

The next day was a full one, filled with temples. My goodness, does Myanmar have temples. We first were driven to the top of Myanmar Hill, where we stood in a line for the elevator, barefooted, surrounded by throngs of people. It was a holiday, and the locals stood shoulder to shoulder with us as we crammed into the lift. The crowd didn’t thin out in the temple itself, but we wound our way around, casting our eyes about, for every which way there was an intricacy, a level of detail covering most inches of this huge space.

Temple on Mandalay HillThree Gold BuddhasTemple HallSandamuni Pagoda Buddha with Roses

From there it was more temples, and a weaving factory, and a gold leaf factory, and lunch. Ben’s tealeaf rice? So good.

More temples, of course. We overlooked the Ayeryarwady River. We walked among Buddha after Buddha. Shoes on, shoes off. We filtered through the crowds and posed for photos with young and eager local girls. In between it all I sat in the back of the taxi with Ben, wiping the dirt off our feet and grinning at each other.

Carving BuddhasWeaving in MandalayAung San Suu Kyi ClippingsLine of 40 BuddhasTemple PeaksCat Wants Attention

Toward evening, we went to U Bein bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge. It’s old and it shows; I felt a little nervous walking along with the hordes of people – mostly local tourists still – and glancing at the cracks under my feet. Some kids came up in shirts that proclaimed, “speak to me in English.” Their teacher explained they wanted to interview foreigners to improve their skills, so we obliged, withdrawing from the crowd to sit on a bench as we were asked our name and if we liked Myanmar. When we stood back up, it was time to cross back the way we came in time for sunset. Boats with tourists floated over the lake beneath us. The yellow orb of the sun sank lower and lower, silhouetting those on the bridge with their arms outstretched for selfies.

Fields by U Bein BridgeSunset over U Bein Bridge

As the dark encompassed us, we went back to the hotel, setting down our cameras before heading out again in search of food on the city streets. Across from a mosque, in what appeared to be the Muslim quarter of town, we came across a chapati stand. Our food was served to us with an enormous grin and my face quickly matched our server’s as I took a taste.

That night in our hotel room, after our first full day in Myanmar, I could say without hesitation I was satisfied, excited, and – happy.