Monday, November 19, 2012

Tidbits from the road

After spending 16+ days travelling, I just got "back" to Hong Kong last night.  I would have really loved to update with my random thoughts from the road but neither Myanmar nor Bhutan had regular (or any) internet access.  I suppose this is a good thing considering it allowed me to remain completely free from distraction and get a real sense of what life is like outside of this little bubble we somehow believe is "normal".  I was also able to properly acknowledge any temporary discomforts as 'First World Problems'.

I'd really love to craft some sort of meaningful post here where I can draw some deep conclusions about the state of the world and the pettiness of our political squabbles compared to the plight of those whose basic rights have been oppressed for decades.  And that is true, which I may or may not elaborate on later since I was in Myanmar during the US election.  However, as I have mentioned before - if I wait for that kind of inspiration this blog would be over before it started.  So instead, I'll just get started.

Here are Ten Tidbits that I found interesting and thought might be worth sharing:

1.  Is it Myanmar or Burma?  

There are ~8 main ethnic groups that make up the country of Myanmar, which is its official name right now.  Burmese people make up 65-80% of the population (depending on who you ask).  The name "Myanmar" is supposed to capture all of the groups while "Burma" is representative of the large majority of culture there.  As a result I'd think Myanmar is more politically correct, but Aung San Suu Kyi said in an interview that she prefers Burma since the name was changed without consulting the people.  That brings me to #2.

2. Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Awng Sahn Soo Chee) is kind of a big deal.  

Have you heard of her?  Well, she is a badass and all of Myanmar is obsessed with her and after spending 8 days there, I kind of am too.  I will attempt to give you a brief background (somewhat akin to that drunk history youtube video given my level of accuracy so please forgive me).  In short, Burma was a British colony until 1947 when her father General Aung San helped get the Burmese people on their feet, founded the army, and attempted to bring democracy to the newly independent nation.  Some real assholes murdered him almost immediately after he took office and the government that ensued was brutally oppressive and violent for years to come.   His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi moved abroad, studied in the US/UK, married a British guy, had 2 kids and was going along her merry way when she returned to Burma in the late 80's after her mom died.  Upon her return, she was lauded as the next great leader by a population starved for a hero (should I say heroine or is that too cruel of a pun?) and ended up founding the National League for Democracy.  The government didn't like that she was encouraging freedom and put her on house arrest for the better part of the next 20 years -- which, by default makes her awesome because how the hell do you survive and keep your faith in life and your country while you're confined to your house?  I can't even survive 1 day.  Anyway her picture is everywhere, people affectionately call her 'The Lady' and she seems to be a generally awesome role model.  And she's really pretty to boot -- Michelle Yeoh played her in a recent biopic called 'The Lady' and the resemblance is striking.

3.  Everyone knows about U.S. politics and everyone loves Obama.

We were staying in a small town near Inle Lake in Myanmar when the US presidential election happened.  We didn't have any access to the internet or news in our hotel so we were resigned to not knowing who won for a few days.  So we went on with our vacation and rode bikes 30-45 minutes away from the already tiny town to a remote village where there was a monastery and a small private school.  The village popped up around 2 years ago after a reknowned monk moved to a cave there.  Seriously.  This guy's thing is he lives in a cave and never comes out.  He has a loyal following that came with him and set up shop nearby when he decided to switch up his cave.  He's got a couple other monks that bring him food and receive visitors and stuff so we went up to the cave and we were visiting with one of his sub-monks.  First off, the guy lights up a cigarette.  Ummm okay, noted.  Then, two ladies scurry by as we enter the cave to sit down and shyly ask where we are from.  Naturally, we say the U.S. and they say 'Go Obama!  So glad he won!'  And that is how we found out who won the US presidential election.

4.  Buddha is a pretty big deal, or something.  

That was sarcasm - he's a huge fucking deal (and so are his corresponding donation boxes).  Throughout this entire trip, Buddha was everywhere. and it became quite apparent that Buddhism is pervasive in this part of the world.  There are good and bad parts of this and I don't really feel like offering an opinion on all of this because it's kind of inappropriate and I'm not sure what I think yet anyway.  The point is that there are THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of Buddha images all over Myanmar and Bhutan.  It's incredible, there are gold and jewel-encrusted Buddha statues towering over desperately poor villages filled with starving children.  It's very confusing, but the people there apparently would not have it any other way.  One of our guides estimated that there are more Buddha images than people in Myanmar.  Bagan, an old capital city in Myanmar, alone had 3,000 stupas (little cone-like structures that have a Buddha image inside).  Another cave had 8,000+ gold-covered Buddha statues inside of it (see this picture).  There weren't a ton of Americans so I enjoyed being regarded as both tall and a celebrity of sorts.

5.  Being a Buddhist monk is not what you think.

All men in Myanmar are required to enter a monastery as a monk at least twice in their lives.  They can stay as long as they want but have to at least give it a go.  There used to be a 'Monk Tax' in Bhutan which required families to send at least one son to a monastery.  Everyone does it at some point, and a lot of these monks look so young -- see picture above by Sir Michael Sloyer... I love the look in this guy's eye.  He's like "Yeah, what up I'm a monk.  What do you care?"  Others smoke cigs (see #3 above), others chew tobacco, and others can be found sponsoring girls at 'Live Musical Shows' which are a strange Bhutanese mix between a karaoke bar, strip club, and nunnery.

6.  Bhutan has an interesting history.  

Our 6 days in Bhutan were filled with interesting folklore.  Let me share an example, which is a story used to explain why there are artistic renderings of penises everywhere throughout the country.  Wooden penises, metal penises, fresco penises, you name it.  The story is about 'The Divine Madman' who was a religious master who used to wander Bhutan a few centuries ago.  He taught in a very different way, a method that typically involved sexual exploits of some sort.  He was also really good at archery (the national sport there) and so he wound up his arrow one day and asked, 'Mr. Arrow, please land where I will be offered delicious local wine and I will find me some super fine ladies'.  He went to the town where it landed and started doing his thang (think tantric).  Finally the townspeople were like whoa dude, are you sure you're a religious master if you're into all this sex stuff?  He said 'Yea, wanna bet?' and they're like 'Yeah, we do - show us something magical.'  The Madman said 'Sure, now bring me a cow and a goat.'  They obliged and he proceeded to eat the flesh of both of these animals and throw their bones in a pile.  He said some stuff that sounded magical and official and the bones rose to form a hybrid animal called the Takin which to this day is the national animal.

Please imagine trying to keep a straight face while your guide tells you this story in complete seriousness.  To be fair, the animals do look like a mix between a goat and a cow.  Here I am offering it some weeds (which are not to be confused with the actual marijuana plants that grow in abundance alongside every road and in every field in Bhutan).

7.  Puppies aren't that cute.

Controversial statement I know, but most countries in Southeast Asia have a major problem with dogs.  They aren't revered as pets in the same way as they are in the US and consequently are allowed to run (and mate) in the wild.  This means there are unkempt, untamed, and un-vaccinated puppies everywhere.  This is a picture of what appears to be two cute puppies, and then you realize they're gnawing on a raw chunk of red meat.  Then they come to you for a kiss.  No thanks Pup.

7.  You thought kids in New York City grow up too fast?  Check out this little rascal.

8.  Apparently I like feeding animals.  Really, I just wanted to reward this lil' guy because he is manually making peanut butter which is one of my favorite things ever.  I thought he deserved a little reward for what he is adding to the world.

9.  I spent two weeks covering up my legs and shoulders and taking my shoes off every ten seconds.  Obviously, that makes for a very sexy vacation with your boyfriend who you haven't seen in several months.  I think this picture is worth including because it makes conservative clothing and shoe tying look hilariously dramatic.  I am also wearing red socks, which is silly, and since I look awful in every single other picture, figure it's worth a little glamour shot?

10.  This picture has not been edited or altered in any way.  All natural beauty, baby.

Okay I think that's enough for now, for anyone who's still reading :)