Saturday, July 31, 2010

Frogwoman 101

The amazing thing about learning to dive was how scary it wasn’t. I was prepared to be freaked out when it really hit me that I was breathing underwater and that I was not going to surface anytime soon. But when I got down to the ocean floor with all the gear on, it just seemed kind of normal.

Chad and I high-fiving like the people in the dorky PADI videos. Really. We're not actually dorks.

Even the underwater skills we had to learn – how to find your air hose if it falls out of your mouth, how to breathe using your buddy’s extra mouthpiece, etc. – were more like games than chores. I think the fact that I’ve snorkeled a fair amount helped; it’s easier if you’re already used to breathing with your face in the water and clearing water from the hose just using your breath.

Chad (lying down) demonstrates proper buoyancy control for the instructor while I (with the pink weight belt) monitor my air supply.

The truly scary part was getting out to the boat. The pier had partially collapsed (three years ago, a local guy told me) and never been repaired.

Going out and back required scrambling down one side using the gaps between boards as a ladder, walking over on three wobbly planks, and climbing up the other side. This got even trickier when the tide was up or somebody had dripped oil on the boards.

Dive instructor Sarah walks the planks.

The payoff for all that, of course, was diving. On our last day we went to a pretty cool reef off Tatawa Island, in Komodo National Park. Photos in the next post!

Friday, July 30, 2010


We only planned to spend a night in Kuta, but fate intervened in the form of a stupid mistake. The morning of our onward flight to Labuan Bajo, we realized we’d both forgotten to replenish our supply of contact lenses. We were planning to dive and snorkel around some of the world’s most renowned coral reefs, and we would be as blind as two bats. It might be possible to get lenses on Flores, but we couldn’t count on it, and there wasn’t enough time to find out.

The airport Starbucks was playing Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." Seriously.

After agonizing, and checking with the airline, and agonizing some more, we decided to pay the penalty, delay the flight two days and get some lenses.

Staying in Bali wasn’t such a bad thing anyway. With the World Cup in its final stages, Kuta had a bad case of football fever.

I love World Cup time in Indonesia. Everyone stays up late to watch the matches in big groups, often clustered around TVs out on streetcorners. They spend the next day analyzing each team's performance and predicting the next-round results. It's a kind of sleepy happy madness, and it reminded me of our earliest days back in Jakarta, which feels appropriate for a farewell tour.

In another blast from the past, we brushed off our rusty surfing style with a couple of lessons. We graduated from the enormous foam boards and began to master somewhat smaller foam boards.

And finally, lenses in hand, we set out for Labuan Bajo.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Flores: Diving, dragons and digs

After Burma we enjoyed a lovely week in Jakarta, seeing friends, mailing boxes home, and untangling bureaucratic details . Or perhaps I should say bureau-cat-ic details, since many of them revolved around the absurd process of preparing to take Susu with us on the plane. Who knew that a former half-starved street kitten of unknown origins would require something as fancy (and expensive) as an exit permit?

Susu demonstrates the Flying Kitty pose, blissfully unaware that she will soon be a flying kitty herself

Anyway, after getting things more or less organized we headed out for the last phase of the Southeast Asia Tour: Flores, Indonesia.

Why Flores?

First, there’s the diving, said to be among the best in the world. Second, there are Komodo dragons. What says “vacation” more than “island of giant reptiles”? Third, there are Hobbits. Or at least bones of Hobbits. Chad has wanted to do a story about the archeological discoveries there since before we came to Indonesia, and I promptly volunteered to be the photographer because I love hanging around dig sites. 

So we set off for Flores. First stop: Bali.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Best-T Honey toothpaste: Sweet!

Here’s the answer to those artificial sweeteners that make your toothpaste taste like a chemistry experiment: toothpaste with honey! Because teeth and sugar go together like … er … because sugar is great for … hmm … well, it tastes good!

I bought Best-T in Yangon. It does, in fact, look and taste like honey, and it lists real honey (not artificial flavoring) as an ingredient. It behaved like normal toothpaste, but an hour after I used it, my teeth always felt dirty again. As far as I could tell, I might as well be brushing with a Snickers bar. So it’s back to boring old Pepsodent for now.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Smackdown: Yangon vs. Jakarta!

Out of all the sprawling Asian cities we visited on the tour, Yangon (Rangoon) reminded me the most of Jakarta. I think most of the resemblance was infrastructural, if I may coin a word: the crazy traffic, the smog, the poorly-maintained roads and the rather sad pedestrian overpasses all felt like my beloved Jakarta.

Beloved? Yes, I do love Jakarta, as much as it drives me crazy. There is a great city locked inside Jakarta's chaos, and it would only take some good management to bring it out. It pains me a little that my adopted city so resembles the abandoned capital of a long-abused nation like Myanmar. But so be it. Without further ado, I present Smackdown 2010: Jakarta-Yangon edition!

STREET LIFE: We didn't have enough time in Yangon to do a thorough survey of markets etc., but I'd have to give the edge to Jakarta. It's hard to match the buzz of the Jak when it comes to people hawking, hustling or just hanging out on the street.

TAXIS: Advantage Jakarta, again. Yangon's taxis lack shock absorbers, and for some reason most of them have lost the inner paneling on their doors, making them look sadder than even the shabbiest Kosti Jaya in Jakarta.

TRAFFIC: Both suffer from poor traffic control and an absence of mass transit, but Yangon is the winner, simply because it's smaller and fewer people can afford cars.

Yangon traffic: not yet Jakarta, but it's getting there

AIR QUALITY: Advantage Yangon (see Traffic).

ROADS: Jakarta by a nose. Lots of potholes in both cities.

MONUMENTS: Sorry, Jakarta, but any city would be hard pressed to top the magnificence of Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda.

The final tally? A 3-3 tie! That's pretty much how the experts have called it as well; the two cities have vied neck and neck in the lower tier of contestants on the annual Expat Quality of Life report.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stupas in the sun

Bagan is Burma's answer to Angkor: some 40 square kilometers packed with more than 2,000 temples.

As you might imagine, it's a bit overwhelming. There are huge old impressive stupas like this one ...

But it was the small things that stayed with me, like a little teak statue

and a (thankfully unrestored) faded painting of a woman with an umbrella.

This being Myanmar, there is a sad side to the story: the junta has been criticized for forcibly relocating people from the area in 1990, and has been accused of degrading the structures' historical value by renovating them inappropriately.

Hawkers and would-be guides at the more famous temples can drive you crazy, but the town itself, Nyaung U, was pleasantly laid-back. Lots of restaurants sold the local yogurt, which was tart, rich, slightly lumpy, and exceptionally delicious. Apparently Leonardo DiCaprio has a fancy frozen yogurt machine in his office, but if I were a Hollywood star, I'd hire someone from Bagan to hang around making the fresh stuff for me.

Friday, July 23, 2010

How to stuff a Jeep

We spent the third night of the hike in Namhsan, a cute and chilly little mountain town.

The guide booked us seats on a Jeep headed down the mountain to Hsipaw the next day. Chad and I were surprised when the little vehicle pulled up in front of our guesthouse.  It clearly had space for only five passengers – one on the bucket seat up front and four on the benches that faced each other in the back. There were already four people aboard, so where were we supposed to sit?

It all became clear after the driver lashed our bags to the roof and gestured for us to get in. I got the remaining bench seat, with Chad on the floor at my feet and our tour guide on the tailgate. And that’s how it remained … until we stopped to take on more people. And more. And more.

In all, we crammed fourteen passengers and a driver into the tiny vehicle: four on the benches, three on the floor, four sitting or standing on the tailgate, two in the bucket seat and one lucky dude sitting sidesaddle on the hood – I kid you not – while clinging to the side-view mirror.

The dirt road down the mountain was swimming in mud. Work crews with hoes and shovels didn’t seem to be making a dent in the mess. The driver did a heroic job getting us to town without getting stuck, or, worse, sliding off the road.

It was a very long five-hour ride: Chad's feet went numb and I felt like I’d been spanked with a two-by-four. But our one-time bad experience is a routine occurrence in Myanmar, where public buses and vans are almost always overflowing with people.

As we stretched our legs at a rest stop halfway down the mountain, I wondered how many of our fellow travelers made this trip monthly or even weekly. Did they dread being crammed willy-nilly into the vehicle, or do you get used to it after the100th time?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A night at the monastery

Pardon the long outage; we've been roaming around inner Flores, Indonesia, where the internet connections are too slow to upload photos. So, back to the hike from Hsipaw to Namhsan ...

On days two and three, we learned how lucky we'd been on day one. It started raining the morning the second day, and it really didn't stop for the rest of the hike.

Mist clung to the mountains until midday.

Motorbikes put chains on their tires to navigate the treacherous muddy sloughs.

When we arrived for our second overnight, our guide discovered the friend he planned to stay with had gone to Mandalay for business. We would have to bunk down at the local monastery instead. Our guide was rather downcast, since he wouldn't be able to drink, but Chad and I were delighted.

We were shown into the large central room at the monastery.  Other than a wooden cabinet for plates and silverware, and some sleeping mats and blankets in one corner, there was no furniture. In the now-familiar Burmese style, there was a fire in the floor at one end of the room. Monks, nuns and travelers drifted in and out, plunking down by the coals to chat, drink tea and get warm. The high mountain location and the constant rain made the air quite chilly.

The monastery cat liked to lounge around by the fire looking outrageously comfortable. As the coals burned down she moved in closer and closer until she was in danger of singeing her fur.

The nuns spread the dinner dishes out on mats on the floor. It was marvelous food: in the front of the photo you can see some shredded local squash, with a simple tofu and herb soup, some wedges of omelet, and a bowl of greens behind. The tastiest dish looked like mashed hard-boiled egg yolks, with a vinegary-sharp taste and a rich, velvety texture. It turned out to be the liquid and bits of solids leftover from the tofu-making process, fermented and spiced with a bit of chili, onion and garlic.

Chad and our guide departed for the men's building, where they watched some World Cup before retiring. I slept on a mat in the big room next to the elderly Mother Superior; we went right to bed at 8:30.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The long (long) walk

Our half-day hike was only a warmup for the main event: a three-day trek from Hsipaw to Namhsan, up in the mountains of the Shan Plateau. We were told the first day would be the toughest, and that was no lie!

The path was quite good -- a lumber road bulldozed by the Chinese to get timber out of the hills faster. It rose at a comfortable rate and rarely turned downward, so you didn't lose any of your hard-earned elevation.We hiked through agricultural land for a good couple of hours before we started to see any untouched forest. The landscapes could have been from 200 years ago ...

and so could the farming implements. 

You can sort of see our guide in the back. He was a chatty guy with a wry sense of humor; he kept joking that we were lost, and honestly, I'm still not sure that we weren't sometimes. He was also a heavy drinker who clearly had a hard time going long without alcohol, which would be a problem for him when we had to stay at a monastery later on.

After about four hours we stopped at a little roadside place for a bowl of Shan noodles, the signature Shan hilltribe dish. In Yangon, Mandalay and even Hsipaw you can find many a bowl of limp, packaged Shan noodles with instant broth. But this was the real thing: chewy, substatial handmade noodles like the ones we'd seen drying the day before, in a real chicken soup with fresh herbs. On the side were tasty chili sauce and some pungent pickled mustard greens.

You coudln't ask for better hiking food ... or food in general, really.

After lunch the road got steeper for quite a while. We were so spoiled for amazing mountain views that I hardly bothered to take photos of them. As I grew tired, my mind wandered in random directions and I spent long stretches trying to remember lyrics to long-lost tunes like "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar."

I was pretty excited to get to the village before nightfall. We'd been hiking since 8 a.m., and in our guide's estimation, had covered more than 20k (13 miles).

We stayed at a typical village house, a big wooden structure with one large room and a couple of small side rooms. In the middle of the big room was a fire on a metal grate -- the most wonderful fire I've ever seen, because I could throw off my pack, sit right down in front of it and enjoy the sensation of doing absolutely nothing.. The owner of the house then put on the most wonderful kettle I've ever seen. Since it was a tea-growing village, he grabbed a handful of fresh tea leaves, roasted them quickly over the flames on a dry pan, and brewed them up strong and smoky like Lapsang Souchong. Normally I don't drink caffeine that late but this time I had no worries. Even though we bedded down right on the floor on thin mats, I slept like the dead -- or at least the dead-tired.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hsipaw: Sitting on top of the world

Hsipaw is an adorable town a few hours east of Mandalay, down a narrow, winding, ill-repaired road lined with the bodies of buses that didn't quite make it.

Downtown is pretty sleepy, with a row of cheap tourist restaurants in front and a local market behind.

Tourists come to Hsipaw to hike, and that's what we did, starting with a half-day stroll to some nearby Shan hilltribe towns.

On our way out we paused for a delicious look at handmade noodles being hung out to dry.

We also got up close and personal with water buffalo.

Every town had a stupa, and these were surprisingly large and opulent considering the overall poverty. They also seemed to be renovated frequently. This one had a Buddha on top of a somewhat idiosyncratic globe: New Zealand was only a word without a landmass, and Laos and Cambodia were missing altogether.

"Why is the Buddha on top of a globe?" I asked our guide.

"Maybe this is after he's taken over the world," he answered.

"But does the Buddha want to take over the world?"

"Who knows?" he said with a mischievous grin.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The brave men of Mandalay

To my disappointment, the Nylon Hotel was not made of nylon.

Our room boasted excellent views of the city, which we earned with our legs -- it was about 7,000 stairs up from the lobby. The electricity was an on-again, off-again affair, as it is in most of Myanmar. But the front-desk people were quite friendly and the location, across from the city's only ice cream parlor, was highly strategic.

Our first night there, we went downtown to see the Moustache Brothers, Mandalay's most famous comedy troupe. The Brothers offer a vaudeville-style mashup of jokes and musical numbers. They used to do their shtick in Burmese, but now they are only allowed to offer it in English before handfuls of foreigners in a converted garage. They boost their income by selling traditional puppets, which line the wall behind the stage.

Lu Maw (above) is the best English-speaker of the group, so he runs the show. His classically-trained wife does most of the traditional dances.

But the emotional heart of the evening is Par Par Lay, who has served three prison terms, including hard labor. His first arrest was for mocking the regime. The most recent was for leading opposition party members in offering donations to monks after the crackdown on the Monks' Uprising of 2007.

He doesn't do much talking in the show, but you can sense right away why Par Par Lay is one of the country's most beloved comedians. He has an irresistible radiance. When he comes on stage, you don't want to look at anyone else.

I've met a few famous people, mostly politicians -- but shaking Par Par Lay's hand was truly an honor. I can't imagine the courage it takes to laugh in the face of the Myanmar regime. It's something I can only aspire to have.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Yangon to Mandalay: The cold bus

Back when I was in Russia in the late 80s, whenever you were leaving on a trip somewhere and it happened to be raining, someone was sure to say lugubriously: "Zee SKY is CRYING because you are LEAFING." If that's the case, Myanmar must have been very unhappy to see us coming, because when we arrived that first morning inYangon it rained all day. We went straight from the airport to the bus station, and there we sat, from early morning until late afternoon, watching the rain fall on the buses, the muddy parking lot, and a stack of Max soft drinks.

The nice lady who sold us the tickets got us settled in the bus station restaurant. "What kind of food would you like?" she asked, and when we said "Myanmar food" she said "Oh, thank you!" with a huge smile. The restaurant people stuffed us with curries. Then a kitten attacked Chad's sneakers. They probably deserved it.

The TV was advertising a fascinating lineup of ancient American movies, from "For a Few Dollars More" to a Doris Day-Rock Hudson flick. I stared sleepily at the screen for hours, listening to a Burmese audio phrasebook I'd downloaded from the Defense Language Institute. It was full of useful phrases like "Stop or I'll shoot!" and "Please don't push, there are enough food parcels for everyone."

There are two rules governing bus travel in Myanmar. First, long-distance buses leave in the afternoon and reach their destination at 4 a.m. I have no idea why, but that's how it is. Second, the Yangon-Mandalay bus is FREEZING COLD. Other travelers have confirmed this. I begged a blanket off the bus driver, but the insanely overchilled air from the ceiling vents cut right through it. I went through the 7 stages of extremely cold bus passengers: anger, disbelief, uncontrollable shivering, (fruitless) complaints to the driver, homicidal impulses, crying jag, and finally, surrender. With my fleece hiking hat pulled down over my ears, my wool sweater pulled up over my face, and the help of a knockout pill (Indonesia's Panadol PM, world's greatest cold medicine!), I finally managed to get some sleep.

Everyone had to get off the bus at 1 a.m. to show their i.d. at a police checkpoint. I tried to get outraged about this government intrusion, but mostly I was happy for the chance to restore some circulation to my toes.

And when I woke up again, we were there: Mandalay!