musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Syria/Turkey Fighter Jet Fiasco: Conspiracy, Strategic Blunder or Both?

Something smelled a little funny when I first saw it on the news... 'Syria downs Turkish fighter jet' ominously stated BBC's ticker. What? Are you serious? Al Assad can't be thaaat stupid, can he?!Unless you've been under a rock (or unless Kim Kardashian passed gas in public and is thus consuming all domestic news in the US), you probably know at least some of the story that's being passed around media circles.

Turkish unarmed F4 strays into Syrian airspace. Syria anti-aircraft guns shoot it down. Plane crashes over the sea. Wreckage (allegedly) found but pilots still unaccounted for. Increasingly hostile rhetoric from Turkey.

I'm not usually a conspiracy theorist, but there are several things I find difficult to believe about the situation as presented to us through official Syrian and Turkish government channels. Having a blog also gives me the opportunity (dare I say the right?) to voice ideas based purely on conjecture (traveling in Australia and SE Asia means I'm more than a little removed from my normal circles and connectivity); please read on with this in mind.

Firstly, the Turkish military is one of the most advanced in the world. Especially the Air Force. Behind the US and Israel, it's probably one of the most potent aerial powers in the world and has been for some time. Well-trained pilots (who, in unrelated news, often-times make the literally 'bumpy' transition to commercial piloting on THY) command state of the art planes and equipment. They're well-financed and good. Really. Really. Good.

Secondly, Syria claims that it shot the F4 down with anti-aircraft machine guns. I'm no military expert, but presumably this would mean that the plane was flying pretty low, much lower than would be needed for reconnaissance. Turkey must've known there was anti-aircraft batteries in the vicinity too, so coupled with advanced on board mapping systems that tell you when, oh say, you've crossed into Syrian territory... you get my drift.

Thirdly (I could go on and on but I won't after this), Turkish authorities are claiming it was a training mission of some sorts. Why would you do a training mission so close to the border with an increasingly hostile neighbor?

Basically, what I'm getting at here is that we probably don't have the full story, especially from Turkey. Syria is claiming that it bears 'no hostility' towards Turkey, something that I actually do believe. Once one of his better allies, Turkey has all but disowned al Assad recently. But al Assad, who I think is a murderous crazy person but not a strategic idiot per se, has to know that further ostracizing Turkey, of all countries, is not in his best interest.

Thus, the conspiracy theorist in me thinks this fiasco was orchestrated by Turkey.

For whatever reason, Erdogan went from BFFs with al Assad to mortal enemies almost overnight last year. After not really getting involved at the start of the carnage, something happened that caused a shift in strategy. Perhaps it was a 'your mama' joke gone horribly wrong or a drastic humanitarian change of heart by our dearly beloved leader in Ankara. Whatever it was (if you have more info on this please comment), now that Turkey hates Syria (something I fully support given the brutality of the last year+) this could be part of a broader strategy.

Let me explain. After Iraq and (more recently) Libya the appetite for western military intervention in Syria is almost non-existent. I'm sure our leaders in Ankara (and more than a few people in the west) would love to dive bomb al Assad and call it a day. Unfortunately, with Russia and China dodging their responsibilities as super powers (as usual), that's probably not going to happen.

Unless, perhaps, Syria starts it first. I'm thinking of a move not unlike those 'but he started it!' moments from the playground. Is it so hard to believe that Turkey, with one of the most advanced militaries in the world, deliberately sent an unarmed 'training' plane (that looks suspiciously like a deadly fighter jet) into Syrian territory and deliberately got shot down so that it could invoke NATO Article 4 ('but he started it!') and have more support for active intervention? Is that so far fetched?

Regardless and thankfully (I'm generally not a huge fan of armed intervention), even if that was the goal it's probably not going to work. EU leaders have urged restraint, even as Turkey heats up the rhetoric. This may lead to more travel bans and economic sanctions, but multi-lateral military intervention is probably still off the table and I'd like to believe that Turkey is smarter than to engage unilaterally.

So what's the end game? Well, even though Turkey may not have gotten the exact response from NATO/EU that it was looking for (if indeed I'm right and that was the plan all along), Syrian military officials are defecting in higher and higher numbers each day. Despite the propaganda spewing from the al Assad regime, these defections could be a signal that something much more significant (and more organically Syrian) is afoot.

The tide may be finally and mercifully turning against al Assad from within. We (Turkey and the international community) should do everything short of all out assault on Damascus to support change in Syria on terms defined by the Syrian people who are fighting and dying for their freedom from tyranny.

It's the least we can do.

Monday, June 25, 2012

From Vietnam/Laos: Photos!

Finally... photos from Vietnam and Laos! Apologies for the delay and greetings from Tokyo!Coming soon: Australia, New Zealand and finally... Japan!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

From Laos: Luang Prabang Mekong Triathlon(g)

Laos is known in the backpacker community (yes, I own a backpack, have survived many an encounter with the species and am therefore an expert) for its value for money, incredible scenery and laid back citizens. What some people would call laziness, I would call (especially after India) refreshingly 'not in your face'. Sales people relax in the shade while you are able to decide if you'd like to buy anything... what a novel concept!

Actually, in broader terms, I absolutely loved the Lao people. Ever smiling with the welcoming nature of the southeast Asians without the taint of over-tourism and over-modernization. Don't get me wrong, the Mekong Riverside Hotel in Luang Prabang was stellar, fully modern and a lovely taste of the nicer legacy of French colonialism. But lazily riding bicycles amongst monks, boutiques and one quaint restaurant (our favorite was L'Elephant) after another, life (and ones heart rate) slows down just a bit.

Of course, traveling with a woman who is on a personal quest to experience everything possible, the heart rate wasn't slow for long. To be fair, we had both been dying to do some outdoorsy stuff and had deliberately left this to Laos, so I had already mentally prepared myself for some physical exertion. Which was good because a lot more than 'some' was required.

We heard that Tiger Trail Outdoor Advertures was the way to go; sustainability focused and highly personalized (at least for us in the low season), going with them turned out to be a great decision. Although at times I felt like our personal guide (a young man whose name sadly escapes me) was taking full advantage of showing around tourists who don't mind getting a little dirty and are not McDonald's obsessed westerners.

First we biked. Hard. Up and down. Through the woods. Through the mud. Across a river on a long boat. Up more hills and down even more. It was exhilarating, exhausting and extremely awesome!

There have been multiple times on this trip where I've been concerned about getting my DSLR wet. The ensuing hike, after a mercifully cool dip in some natural springs, was one of those times. And it wasn't raining. You get the idea.

Our reward for completing Day 1 quicker than normal bike/hike was more time in a quaint farming village that was to be our home for the night. For once not having brought anything to read, we spent most of the day wandering around the village (Tiger Trail brings tourists here often it seems so they were comfortable with our presence and mainly just went about their business as if we were just flies on the wall) and enjoying game after game of sepak takraw, a game that combines soccer/football, volleyball, martial arts and acrobatics. Played with a ball made out of some sort of bamboo-like substance (a lot like a wiffle ball just made from a tree not a Chinese plastics factory), we both sat there mesmorized while team after team of farmers played after returning from their fields, displaying some of the most impressive athleticism I've ever seen.

And then they asked me to play, at which time the quality decreased just as quickly as the hilarity increased. I wasn't terrible, but (as was evident by me falling on my ass after trying to execute a scissor kick) I certainly wasn't any good. Fantastic experience though and thankfully I have some pictures to prove it!

We were up at dawn the next morning. Not because we had to be, but because we were both fascinated by the sounds of early morning village life and, quite frankly, didn't have much choice in the matter. Roosters. Dogs. Children. Mothers. Crickets (the Lao refer to cricket chirping as 'Chinese' because it's so loud/annoying). Yelling. Crying. Laughing. Sometimes it's better to close your eyes and hear the surrounding world. This was one of those times.

Our 'triathlon' finished with a four-hour kayak journey down the iconic Mekong River, the namesake for an entire region and the source of much life and beauty. Much to the chagrin of our guide we were able to weather the rapids without capsizing and successfully floated into Luang Prabang a little after noon... sunburned, sore, more than a little tired, and smiling from ear to ear.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

From Vietnam: So Many Treasures... So Little Time

Most of what Americans know (or think they know) about Vietnam comes from the war that was the defining event of my parent's generation. Few (including me 10 days ago) have any clue that in fact Vietnam holds countless, non-war-related amazing treasures. Of them all, I have to say that the abundance of natural beauty and the beautiful (inside and out) people were my favorite (and therefore most blogworthy!). Let's start with the people. I decided before the trip that I would rebel and not bring a razor. Those that know me know that this is not the most violent of rebellions, but whatever, I don't want to do it on vacation either. Unfortunately, in planning to periodically get shaved by a guy in X country on the side of the road, I forgot that Asians have very little, if any, facial hair. Fail. So, to avoid looking like a Neanderthal and to ensure Lauren will look at me, I've been going to haircut places who use an electric razor on me. Normally this is a fairly standard process, 10 minutes tops.

Not in Vietnam.

In Saigon, the random salon on the side of street into which we stumbled looked innocuous enough. One manicure (for Lauren), shave, and 40 minute 'best. shampoo. ever.' (it was really more like a massage honestly) later, we paid $10 and bid our adieus to salon heaven. That, my friends, is service.

This is but one silly example of a larger theme: Vietnam might offer the best service to money ratio of any place in the world. It's almost as if people are born with smiles and helping hands. Sure, vendors offer to sell you stuff, but you generally feel good after the experience (except at the beach near Hue where, being the only foreigners there, several children selling junk food declined to offer us any peace). Hotels are generally clean and the staffs are always fantastic. Maybe we've just had good luck (thanks Trip Advisor!), but most truly are fantastic. And all that will cost less per night than dinner at Chili's!

Dear Vietnamese people: love you guys! I'll definitely be back (although perhaps when your government realizes that communism is extractive, impossible, and just darn silly and that your economy would grow so much more if you would stop freaking out about everything)!

Then there's the natural beauty. And boy oh boy are there lots of options! We decided to stay in Hue while in mid-country, essentially for it's access to lots of different cool things. First stop was Thuan An beach which, as mentioned before, was absolutely pristine except for the durned kids (best if said in a crotchety grandfather-like voice).

Next was the massive drive (10 hours spent in the car that day) to Paradise Cave with a stopover into the war-era Vinh Moc Tunnels. Limestone caves are exceedingly difficult to describe if you've never been in one. Let's just say I let out an audible 'wow' when my eyes adjusted to the light and before me was a moonscape of formations dripping with water and whetting the imagination (is that a bear? a dragon? a face?). Privately operated and only opened in 2011, only one kilometer of 30+ kilometers of cave are open to the public. Can you imagine being the guy who stumbled upon that?! By the way, turns out it was a villager hunting (or something) in the jungle who first felt the cold blow of the cave's mouth in 1999. Crazy to think that this underground palace was completely hidden to humans before that; makes you wonder what else is out there?

The next day, instead of taking a taxi to lovely Hoi An town, we decided to take the Holiday Diamond Hotel's (worth every bit of the praise it receives on Trip Advisor - truly a gem of a hotel in Hue mainly because of the staff who really are that nice) advice and go the 200km by motorbike...

(This is the point in the post where our parents might or might not have heart attacks.)

In a move that would've made our dear Juba friend Sam exceedingly jealous (thanks for the idea buddy!), we strapped our backpacks to the back of the bikes... and off we went! To be fair, we weren't driving so the coolness factor is diminished a tad, but it was still amazing. After a quick dip (and some mechanical trouble) at the refreshingly cold Elephant Springs, a lot of very fresh seafood (i.e. you point at the live versions of what you will eat shortly thereafter) and a stop at a war era top-of-the-mountain US military bunker near Da Nang, we made it to Hoi An windblown and happy. Not sure I want to own a bike myself really, but I definitely get the appeal; especially on the side of the mountain windy roads overlooking the ocean, devoid of cars thanks to the normal traffic-preferred tunnel below.

Last, but certainly not least, no trip to Vietnam (especially Hanoi) is complete without visiting Halong Bay. One of the 7 natural wonders of the world, you (and thousands of your closest tourist friends every day) have to see it to believe it. As the story goes, a dragon's tail crashing to the ground created huge holes in the land that are now filled with water. The result of said dragon's handiwork is a surreal underwater mountain range with only the peaks peaking above the ocean. We heard (thanks Victor!) that with only a day trip there (it's a 3-4 hour drive from Hanoi) you're asking to hate it, so we went ahead and spent the night on a lovely, albeit extremely touristy, 13 room cruise boat. Definitely worth it as it wasn't until the second day that the sun started to power through the persistent mist, bathing the other-worldly, seemingly never ending (think 'far as the eye can see') rock formations in light. Stunning.

Notable exceptions that didn't make it into the post because they were neither natural nor specifically people- or service-related:

  • Hoi An - Amazingly quaint little town with an old quarter that's straight out of some French colonial novel about le times gone by.
  • The Imperial City in Hue - crumbling a bit but still really fun to walk through the grounds. Don't miss the Imperial Tennis Court!
  • Enjoying beers and fried pork while sitting on plastic stools at an intersection in Hanoi's old quarter... watching the world (mainly mopeds and flustered looking tourists actually) go by.
8 days definitely did not do Vietnam justice and every minute it seemed to inch its way towards the top of the 'favorite country of our trip' list... Oh well, guess we'll just have to go back!

From Vietnam: Harvey and the War

The Vietnam War as I knew it only existed in textbooks. The conflict was an existential, unfathomable (at least before the Iraq War) concept. Vietnam was to me more a descriptive adjective than an actual place. Even when I became friends with several of the multitude of Vietnamese-origin Texans, I never seemed to put two and two together. It wasn't as if I didn't know they were related; it just never became an active part of my daily intellectual wanderings.

Until I finally traveled to Vietnam.

I don't come from a long line of military folks. My father is Turkish (and therefore served mandatorily in the Turkish armed forces not the American ones) and, to my knowledge, few people in my American family served for Uncle Sam in that way. If they did, they sure don't talk about it! The notable exception to this is my cousin Vince who recently conVinced (pun intended) the high brass to pin a star on his shoulder (congrats again Vince!). Long story short, I have great admiration for our military heritage... we just weren't really a big part of it.

At first Vietnam seemed like any of the other SE Asian countries. Friendly people. Sticky heat. Motorbikes everwhere. Then I started seeing a few hammers and sickles. Lots of red... everywhere. The old GI bars in Saigon, now officially called Ho Chi Minh City much to the chagrin of most southerners with whom we spoke, and the ubiquitous army green Vietnamese flag hats got more noticeable. The lingering resentment towards the always suspicious north (access to blogging, and probably many other, websites are restricted in the south), and the US who made the conflict uncomprehensibly more destructive, seemed to add a layer of unease that belied the endless smiling faces.

"Are they ok with us now?" wondered Lauren's dad over Skype before our flight to SGN. Pssh, we thought, that was forever ago! It's fiiiiine. Actually, the man who served in the reserves during the war and generally lived through those turbulent times in the US may have been more perceptive than we thought... maybe he was on to something?

Alas and thankfully, no. The Vietnamese are amazing and opened their arms to us, indulging our increasingly bold questions as we delved deeper into this part of America's and Vietnam's dark past. "Some of the old people who lived through the war may not want to talk to you," Thien told us as he showed us through the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the site of some of the worst continuous aerial bombing that forced entire villages to live underground. "But most of the younger people especially are really curious about the US."

The same guide also told us what had to be a candidate for the 'most heartwarming story of the year' award. Harvey, a 60+ year old Texan, served in Vietnam during the war. At the time units were distributed throughout the south, tasked with living in small villages for often months at a time in villagers' homes. Almost four decades later, his health beginning to wane, Harvey returned to Vietnam with a bag undoubtedly full of white walking shoes, flowery shirts and a poloroid... of him standing with a young boy in front of a hut. As Thien whipped out the photo from his wallet he told us about when Harvey asked him to find that boy. He'd really like to see him again; unfortunately he didn't know the name of the boy, much less the name of the village. Being a military man, he knew the approximate location on a map, but that was it. Long story short, Thien was able to channel his inner Sherlock and, after several days of non-stop searching, finally happened upon a mother carrying her small child in front of their house.

"Do you know this boy?" Thien asked for the ump-teenth time, pointing to the shirtless figure on the right.

"Sure," she answered without a pause. "That's my father. He's in the rice fields right now but let me get him."

Neither Harvey nor the boy in the photo remembered anything about that day. There had been lots of villages and lots of white people roaming around at that time. Neither spoke a word of the other's language, but when they finally did meet, I imagine the handshake was earthshatteringly epic... or maybe it was a hug?

I still don't really know the dates, the offensives, or much about the intricacies of battle in the '60s and '70s. Nonetheless, I learned a lot about what we call the Vietnam War, very little of which could ever be learned from a textbook. It was a dark period in world history, but kudos to the Vietnamese for welcoming us and countless other American tourists each year just a few short decades after... well, you can read about that more in the history books and, better yet, visit Vietnam!

Monday, June 11, 2012

From Myanmar/Thailand/Cambodia: Photos!

The next batch of photos are up! Thailand ones are fairly lame (although Chiang Mai was lovely and definitely worth the trip) but the other two (especially Myanmar) are pretty fun.

Myanmar photos.

Thailand photos.

Cambodia photos.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Cambodia: Angkor Whaaaat?

It was on the list. You know, the list. It's been on there for a while. Not exactly sure why or where I first heard about Angkor Wat, but from the first picture I saw I was hooked.

Well, turns out that Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, is not only fascinating in person, it's only part of the fun! Much like Bagan in Myanmar, the temples just north of Siem Reap (of which Angkor Wat is the most famous) just keep going. And going. And going. Also like Bagan, they were all a bit different from one another, built by different people at different times for different (or perhaps the same?) purposes. We were there for a good part of the day (5am to 1pm) and I get the distinct impression that we barely scratched the surface of what there was to explore both on and off our map.

Like other places we've been in Cambodia, the whole complex is well-maintained, organized and conducive to exploration. Not really being the 'guided tour' types (with some rare exceptions), we preferred to use a tuk tuk (the place is too big to see much of it in one day on bicycles) for transportation. But the exploring was up to us. Just the way we like it!

However, even in the low season and under the extreme humidity, there were thousands of other people (some of whom are described below) who decided to be hand held by an undoubtedly knowledgeable guide constantly spitting out dates and random tidbits of information that most likely made the treacherous journey into one ear, through the thoroughly confused tourist's brain and out the other ear. They're easily identified and just as easily grouped into categories.

Seeing as how Cambodia is in the neighborhood as the world's most prolific travelers, it's no wonder that many a group of Chinese and Japanese were spotted being ushered through the ruins of and around Angkor Wat. Let's call them crazy Asian tourists... crasians for short.

In my experience crasians are some of the most well-prepared, and hilarious, travelers. Always in groups of 15+, your typical crasian will don a late model fanny pack (yes, apparently they are still manufactured), big floppy hat and, always, a nice camera. We're talking DSLR here mostly, with expensive point-and-shoots as the backup. And they all have them. Good luck trying to take a shot of the temple overrun by trees and vines (nature 1 : humans 0) without also capturing at least 4 and a half crasians posing for photos. As the tour guide yawns (it's probably his/her fault anyways - I've heard guides say 'and this is a pretty place for a picture' countless times), this can go on for 10s of minutes, each husband or wife taking a picture of the significant other flashing the peace sign. Then a group shot. Or three. Luckily for my sanity, crasians are also very good at waiting in line. They are exceedingly polite and regularly express animated acknowledgment of interest facts through head nodding and surprise-indicating verbal cues ('aahh' and 'oohh' being the most common). And they always smile at me while looking straight up at my chin from below. Yes, at I am a freak of nature in Asia.

As a point of clarification, I am not calling all people of the Asian persuasion crazy. Much like otherwise normal fraternity guys descend into insanity upon coming together in a group, so too do Asian tourists become crasians when grouped into 15 or more.

To be fair, American tourists are similarly fun to watch. Let's call this group Loud Bad Jeans White Shoes (LBJWS). LBJWSs, although not as prevalent as crasians on the international 'it's in the guidebook so I must see it' scene, are just as recognizable. They're almost always loud and obnoxious ("Betty. Betty! BETTY! Honey, you HAVE to come and see this pretty 'lil native thing here! It's only 20 bucks!), never minding those of us around who realize that there are other people around that may not want to hear about the great juice mixer you just bought or the Made in China scarf you're about to purchase. Almost without fail, LBJWSs also have poorly fitting jeans (but they're just comfortable right?). C'mon, admit it, we all have a pair (or three)... Lastly, LBJWSs always seem to be wearing tennis shoes (usually white) with white athletic tube socks. Again, they're comfortable, get off our backs.

In all honesty, I think Europeans are the best travelers, perhaps because traveling is such an ingrained part of their culture. German, French, English, etc. youth are encouraged to take a year off backpacking around the world before or after university. It's a great policy if you ask me and one that more American kids should try. Generally they also have decent fashion sense, even when it's a million degrees outside and despite the fact that capri pants (i.e. manpris) never look good on men. Even though Germans have the tendency to pair shorts with hiking boots not just when hiking, I have to give a general thumbs up to the Euros (not the currency, that's a mess). Sometimes on tours but (especially with the youth) usually alone or in pairs, they get my vote for most awesome-est tourists.

Call me insensitive for pointing this stuff out and collectively poking fun at tourists (and myself - just ask Lauren about some of my outfits on this trip)? I'm just telling you what I saw. And see over and over again. And over again.

From Cambodia: Beauty out of a Dark Past

Last Monday was the most difficult day of the trip. By a long shot.

Today, as I sit on the porch of a bungalow looking out over the ocean to the islands in the distance, it's hard to imagine that Cambodia and all it's beautiful people, beaches and heritage could have been such a place of carnage just over three decades ago. The dichotomy of what I see today and what I saw Monday is astounding.

I've written about paradise on a couple of occasions. There's the Madagascar version and the Zanzibar version - both examples of how time slows to a crawl, how the sun wins everytime over my pale skin, and how infantessimally small a place we each occupy on this earth. I'm not here to tell you that our newly experienced chunk of heaven (at Paradise Bungalows on Koh Rong Island off the coast of Sihanoukville in Cambodia) is better or worse than that which we experience in East Africa. I'm not a beach guy and, if anything, I prefer Koh Rong because (probably because of the time of year we're here) it's a bit cooler.

What I am here to tell you is that, despite the regular naps, cocktails and sound of the waves hitting the beach, I'm still struggling to come to terms with Monday, the day I met the Khmer Rouge.

It's difficult to describe the atrocities committed by the leaders of Cambodia from 1975-1979 in any detail without turning yours and my stomach. In brief, Pol Pot and his cronies killed over 2 million people in 4 years, a third of the number killed in the Holocaust. They didn't have the funds for bullets, so they used farm tools. You get the idea.

Walking around the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and the killing fields (their term, not mine) just outside of town, I was struck by a few things. Firstly, the museums (especially the killing fields) are presented with taste and reverence, no easy task given the gravity of the subject. They're meant to (and succeed in) present information, honor the memory of those who perished, and cause the visitor to consider the implications of what they have just experienced. They didn't think it could happen to them. Not in peaceful Cambodia. Those types of things only happen in Nazi Germany, Pinochet's Chile or Sudan's Darfur... right?

The second thing that was impossible to ignore was the abundance of middle-aged amputees and other disabled survivors. They beg outside museums, they perform music while you walk around the temples of Angkor Wat, and most do whatever they can to be functional members of society. Another legacy of the genocide, their plight is expanded upon by a friend on her blog, so I'll stop there. (Here's another good post from her on Cambodia.)

Lastly, Monday's eye opening has caused me to think a lot about the nature of humanity, specifically how such evil can make a home for itself inside some people. This is most likely not a discussion that will manifest itself here on the interwebs where Angry Birds (all the rage in SE Asia) and Facebook reign supreme. This is something that I have to deal with through education, thought, and discussion with those who understand me the best. What makes people do something like this? The Pol Pots. The Hitlers. The Gaddhafis. The Saddams. Are they insane? Are they inherently evil? Were they abused as children? Is there anything we can do to make sure this doesn't happen again?

Their hate is real. It came from somewhere. It will undoubtedly (and unfortunately) manifest itself somewhere else in history, such is the reality of human nature. Luckily for me I have been privileged enough to be loved by amazing family, friends and communities throughout my life. I'm lucky enough to be able to explore the far ends of the earth and the stunningly beautiful parts of Cambodia (quick pause to look up from the iPad). The smiles on the faces of villagers, airline attendants and waiters remind me that fortunately those with love greatly outnumber those with hate in Cambodia and our strange world. They're trying to move past a devastating time in their history, encouraging visitors (as do I wholeheartedly) to experience all parts of their history (admirably even the darkest hours) and, as I am currently doing, soak up the copious sun on one of the many white, sandy beaches.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

From Myanmar (Burma): Meet the People of the Lake

Apparently in 2012 some people still live on the water...

We were intrigued the moment we heard about it. Thanks to the built-in flexibility of our trip and a stroke of luck, we were able to experience it first hand.

From Bagan, we had originally planned to take a boat up the river to a town called Mandalay. But after hearing that Mandalay offered only a couple things to see (although I'm sure it has more than that if you dig deeper), we changed our plans. Especially when we heard about Inle (pronounced in-lay) Lake, land of people that live on the water. Literally (for best effect say literally with English accent), live on the water.

Oh, and finding William (the stroke of luck), a fantastic local travel agent, really helped facilitate our adventurism. He arranged everything and, more importantly, facilitated payment for all domestic flights and hotels in a way that did not completely deplete our limited number of Benjamins.

But back to the people of the lake. I wasn't sure what to expect honestly. In my mind I was picturing Kevin Costner floating aboard a raft in that awful 90s movie that I actually kind of liked. What does it mean to live your entire life on the lake?

In short, Inle blew me out of the water. Figuratively. Our cab driver from the Heho airport (a structure about the size of your uncle Billy's red barn) nodded when we told him we needed to go to the Golden Island Cottages, a hotel that is, you guessed it, in the middle of the lake with each individual room on stilts above the water. How he was going to get us there in his Corolla wagon was beyond me, but I've noticed that Myanmarians have a way of getting things done. So we agreed on a price and off we went to the town at the northern tip of the lake. That's where we met Soe.

A man perhaps somewhere in his thirties with strong cheek bones and a distinctly Jin-like appearance (any Lost fans out there? Anyone? Bueller?), Soe would be our guide and boat driver for the next two days. We even got to meet his whole family (cute kids, grandma and wife who spent her days rolling tobacco to be sold for $3 for 50 cigars they call cheerots - supplemental income for the fam) at one point as we were escaping from a predictable downpour that seemed to happen around the same time every day. Good man that Soe. Heck of a boat driver too!

As mentioned and on friends' and William the travel agent's recommendation, we stayed at the Golden Island Cottages. Wow. No, we didn't have electricity until the evening (par for the course in up-country Myanmar), but it didn't matter. Sitting out on the patio watching the fishermen balance on one foot, a single oar wrapped up artfully in the other leg and a long net flowing effortlessly in their hands (wait until you see the photos of this - it's real I promise), all while enjoying a cold can of Myanmar (we were drinking the beer, not the fishermen - now that would be impressive) while being suspended on bamboo stilts a few meters off the water... did I mention that the sun was also setting? Again, wow!

The Inle Lake-ians truly do live on the water. From floating tomato gardens (from where they export the round red things regionally) and training boats for the young ones to countless homes, restaurants and hotels hovering over the water, this was a place from another world and another time. Don't bother with a watch; time is inconsequential. Focus, as I did to the tune of substantial memory card usage, on getting every photo with stunning clouds, gorgeous mountains and pagodas in every direction and fascinating people in every click.

Speaking of the people... One of my favorite parts of our time on Inle was the people watching and, yes, people photographing. Lauren astutely pointed out that if I took as many pictures of children near their homes in suburban Kansas, I'd be on somebody's (mostly likely the police) watch list. But it wasn't just the children that fascinated me. It was the women working in their family's professions (water gardening, home making, weaving, etc. of which the most fascinating had to be lotus flower weaving... Lauren has a scarf that took 4,000 flowers and a month to make to prove it) and the men in theirs (mostly fishing or pulling up sludge from the bottom of the lake, probably for use in construction). It was how everything seemed to flow together a bit slower than what we're used to; refreshingly disconnected from the interwebs, crackberries and, well, life on land. It was the fact that these people spent almost their entire lives going from stilted homes to boats, spending days (weeks, months, years?) on end without setting foot on earth.

As an aside... for a while I wondered why only the children would smile and wave as we passed by in our boat. Then I migrated the question to a different, more familiar setting to achieve my own answer... do you wave and smile at other drivers as they go by on the street? Well, the lake and canals are their roads... so why would they?!

I mentioned before that we were in pursuit of the real, not-yet-commercialized Myanmar. Well folks, we found precisely that in Inle. I'm not sure how many tourists annually get the amazing opportunity to go there, but given the remoteness of the location and the fact that Myanmar as a whole has only recently arrived on the more mainstream itineraries... probably not very many.

A special place indeed, I struggle to compare Inle to anything I've seen before. Ultimately I've come to the conclusion that it truly has a unique place in the crowded (and increasingly jumbled) travel log in my mind. One of a kind. An undeniable highlight of the entire trip. Wow.

I know I say this a lot, but stay tuned for photos from Inle and the rest of Myanmar soon!


Friday, June 1, 2012

From Myanmar (Burma): Buddhas and Bikes

Yangon is a city. Not a big one, but one nonetheless. 24 hour (mostly) electricity. Paved roads. Sounds of traffic. Hustle. Bustle. The transformation happening in the economic capital is exciting and tangible; nonetheless, after 2 days we couldn't wait to see life outside the lights.

Our first opportunity came about an hour outside of Yangon courtesy of a (highly recommended) mountain bike outing (thanks for everything Jeff!) that took us through lovely forests, rubber cultivating communities, and farmland as far as the eye could see, ultimately culminating in a little pagoda (Buddhist temple) on top of a hill. The pagoda is maintained by a single monk who also saw a need for rural children to receive an education. Jeff and other friendly donors are helping him build a school and hire a local teacher with the hopes of one day getting included into the government education system. Development at its rawest, bare-bones best.

But it wasn't until propeller powered puddle jumper took us to Bagan, an ancient city to the northwest of Yangon, that we got a true sense of what Buddhism means, and has meant for centuries, in Myanmar. After Yangon, the bustling and growing non-capital city, Bagan was quite literally a step into the past. Even the ride from the airport (punctuated by much unnecessary honking by our taksi driver who refused to understand why we wouldn't want to take him to the airport the next morning) was like a tour through a crazy fairytale land.

I'm not really sure what the history of Bagan is. I could research it, but that would probably take away from nap time. So here's how I would describe the history:

A Buddhist wiseman arrived in Bagan from Tibet having just reached nirvana sometime around, oh say, the 9th century. He built a couple really cool-looking pagodas. After he passed on to the next life and over the years, Bagan became a Buddhist Mecca of sorts, with pious king after pious king adding to the lore and the lure of the place via construction of new fangled pagoda complexes. Each one-upping the last, proving to the world that their Buddha, and the pagoda over his head, was the best, the biggest, the most beautiful.

That's not the history. Probably not even close. But as we rode our rickety, barely functioning relic-of-a-bygone-era bicycles over the hills and through the woods, I couldn't help but picture such events. Magnificence far from modern-day civilization that might've been the center of previous civilizations. This place is the man-made Cappadocia of Myanmar, a place where piety meets architecture in a wonderful way. After the first couple stops that involved removing both my boots and my socks (easier said than done when you're 6'2", not flexible and there's no place to sit), I stopped even going inside, choosing instead to admire the structures from the outside... left to wonder what led to that design to be used by that king in that place on that date. I sat there pondering what truly was the historical and religious significance of this enchanting (and exceedingly warm this time of year) place.

I guess I'll have to do some research to find out...!


From Myanmar (Burma): Politics, Poverty and Progress

In support of its rapid (and dare I say remarkable) transformation that started late last year, we decided early on that Myanmar was to be a top destination for us on this trip. We'd also heard that so much of traditional culture has been maintained over the years due to its isolation from the rest of the world, a positive byproduct of what was otherwise a brutally repressive, multi-decade military regime-controlled nightmare. As the country finally leaps into the 21st century, some elements of that raw, ancient culture will inevitably lose out to the long-awaited comforts and conveniences of modernization.

Our goal was to experience it before that happened.

After a remarkably easy visa process in Bangkok accompanied by a mad search for US$100 bills (much like South Sudan, Benjamins get the best exchange rate and, due to sanctions, credit card usability is rare/costly and ATMs are non-existent), we landed in what is surprisingly not the capital city. Yangon (known previously as Rangoon) is the economic hub and previous capital; however, at some point in its recent period of paranoid paternalistic politics (I'm in an alliterative mood), the capital was moved to a remote site in the middle of the jungle (sound familiar South Sudan?). I heard the move was because it would be harder for the US and its western military counterparts (or was it China?) to bomb government compounds surrounded by trees. Yeah... I'm sure that's a very real threat.

Like Yangon, the country's name changed from Burma to Myanmar in the early '90s, probably around the same time they switched the side of the road on which cars are to drive (left to right). I'm sure there is some official reason as to why this happened. More realistically it was probably a metaphorical middle finger aimed squarely at England - and the Indian rulers-by-proxy who benefited greatly from colonialism in Myanmar - and its historically extractive and divisive colonial shenanigans.

It was pretty obvious to us that life is changing at breakneck speeds. Friends tell us that new cars were almost completely absent from the road this time last year. Driving through Yangon in the still ubiquitous Flintstone-esque (we watched the road go by under our feet more than once) clunkers, now one sees new car dealerships and, every so often, advertisements for western goods. Hillary Clinton's visit last month was monumental for Myanmarians (Burmese just sounds wrong given the name change so I decided to make up my own noun) and signaled the suspension of sanctions that could be removed entirely pending continued political change. Once the reforms are irreversible (some with whom we spoke feel they are already), foreign companies will flock. The oil companies (unsurprisingly) are already here, undoubtedly to be followed shortly by big banks and Starbucks. Myanmar will host the Asean Games (SE Asia's Olympics) next year; they probably hope to have ATMs and credit card machines in place so that not all of the expected 500,000 visitors will have to bring wads of cash. Good idea.

What I saw in Myanmar, from a development perspective, was encouraging. Sure, there was poverty. But what I experienced, especially in the rural areas to the north of Yangon, was more akin to what I saw in Paraguay some seven years ago (how has it been that long?): an entire country with the skills and capacity to develop as quickly as their neighbors (Argentina / Thailand) stifled by a repressive and/or corrupt government (Colorado Party in Paraguay / the generals in Myanmar) hell bent on keeping power even at the cost of progress. I saw poverty with unlimited potential for growth. But what I didn't see was destitution. What I didn't see was hopelessness. What I didn't see was problems without solutions. Coming from post-drought Ethiopia and perpetually-on-the-verge-of-war-with-the-north South Sudan, this was refreshing. This is a place where true development (not just 'hey, let's try our best to keep people alive') can, and will, happen.

But back to politics. By most (local and international) accounts, President U Thein Sein deserves much of the credit for the reforms. With a clean and humble past free of the atrocities that plague the reputations of the country's former military rulers, Mr. Thein Sein has pragmatically and technocratically pushed past all expectations and proved most doubters (including yours truly) wrong. A friend in Yangon thinks he should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize... and I don't necessarily disagree. Admittedly there is still a ways to go and many issues of reconciliation (ever the buzz word) are yet to be ironed out. The opposition party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, only holds a small percentage of seats in parliament although she herself recently won an historic seat in parliament after decades of house arrest and is currently traveling outside of Myanmar for the first time in decades. Progress is progress though, and the change I've seen is real.

And real change, my friends, is something that gets my support. And my $100 bills.