Lines that Divide

Lizard chirps and bird songs woke me up before the sun. We packed our backpacks last night, so we just had to brush our teeth and eat breakfast before catching the bus back to Mandalay for our flight back to Thailand.

On the long journey back to Mandalay, I appreciated the things I was too distracted to appreciate before. Peering out the window, I saw miles and miles and miles of farmland, stretching as far as my eyes could see. There were no tractors, just Burmese men leading their oxen, cultivating the soil.

Homes looked like they could be blown away with the huff and puff of a big bad wolf. Yet, families sat together on the ground sharing meals and playing card games. Children were like cubs in the arms of their mother bears and maybe their aunts. No strollers or fancy contraptions that strap their babies to their chests. I appreciated that there were no daycares in sight.

Colorful marionettes dangled from tree branches waiting to tell stories of spirits and royalty. Yoke the’ is a traditional form of entertainment in Myanmar. Puppets portraying animals, princesses, princes, a king, a brahmin, an alchemist swirled in the wind with tales at the tip of their painted lips.

thumb_IMG_7283_1024

Motorbikes and monks crossed rivers that overflowed onto roads.

thumb_IMG_7471_1024

As I looked at this piece of the world I thought about how different it is from America. In the United States everything we could want or need can be bought at the store, and we operate machines for hard labor. In these small towns, the people depend on the land for most resources. They depend on their bodies and their animals. While there is an overabundance in America, there’s a sense of simplicity here.

thumb_img_7370_1024.jpg

I wondered what it would be like to be Burmese for a day. I wondered what a day would be like walking in their shoes… But many of them don’t wear shoes. So… in their bare feet.

I couldn’t help but reflect about my own lifestyle. Sometimes I am uncomfortable if things don’t feel clean. And here, women sweep the dirts floors of their houses where the words bedroom, living room, and kitchen are superfluous. In their homes, just one room is shared by an entire family. I have everything I need, plus so much more. But here, the families seem to have just what they need.

I wonder what they want. Many of the things we take for granted in America do not exist to the natives of Myanmar. And how could one want what they don’t know about?

To get close to the ground, the people squat the way our ancestors did. Americans could probably sit that way before our range of mobility became limited by the constant use of chairs and sofas. To get higher, they climb bamboo ladders and patch roofs with tightly weaved palm leaves.

Mandalay seems to lack all of the luxurious things we have access to in the States. It also lacks opportunity. I couldn’t help but feel overcome with gratitude for all the options I have and the choices I get to make.

Where do they buy books?

Where are the schools?

But seriously… Where did the monk get an iPhone??

These patches of Earth are untarnished in many ways. There are no loud roads of traffic. There are no factories blowing clouds of chemicals into the atmosphere. Even the sense of time is different.

It’s a beautiful, natural world in the land of Myanmar, and I wondered if the United States is killing itself. And if and when it does, will Myanmar still be breathing and growing?

Or will the United States and China find a way to steal her trees instead of her gemstones?

I saw a sign in the middle of a verdant, green field, “Royal Bagan Hotel Production.”

It made my stomach twinge. No wonder they treat tourists like we are walking wallets and our initials are U.S.D. Maybe they resent us for our unwelcome attendance in their homeland. How can I blame them? Perhaps the borders were open for tourism to bring money. Locals are the ones working to give tourists a five star experience, yet they will never see the money we spent for the experience. Just like anywhere else in the world the rich keep getting richer, and in some cases, they ride on the bleeding backs of the poor.

When Eric and I travel to undeveloped areas, there is an obvious tension in our interactions.  At first it was really disconcerting and annoying, but now we know that this is life. Unfortunately we come from a greedy nation that is in cahoots with a greedier nation. But just like the Burmese didn’t choose their place of birth, neither did we.

We can’t change the way they look at us, but we can show them that not all of us are here to take from them. We can learn to be givers. Instead of being another “No, thank you,” when they solicit a sale, we can look into their eyes and ask them questions, human being to human being. We can learn from their ways of life and their cultures.

On our next trip I plan to take small things in our backpack. So every time we have to say no, we can still give something small.

* * *

I hope our child or children can travel less like me and more like the hippies and backpackers who are grateful for any cot or bunk or tent to sleep in at night. I hope they can experience the world in an authentic way and learn from the natives of the land.

But I know I would have to expose them to those kinds of conditions. I would have to pave a path for them to follow.

Eric and I learn valuable lessons from these moments of discomfort. Traveling is not about being comfortable. It’s about opening our eyes and our hearts to new experiences, then adapting and allowing our perspectives to evolve.

It’s about learning. The world is rich in knowledge, and the most valuable things are not learned from reading books or memorizing facts, but by engaging in experiences. It’s breaking the routines and habits that make us move like robots on timers.. so we can experience the unknown. It’s recognizing the invisible lines that divide us and finding ways to cross them.

Traveling is immersing ourselves in cultures like diving into an ocean without knowing what’s underneath. Sometimes there will be rocks, it might be hard or even painful, but most of the time it’s mysterious and captivating.

Migrating like monarch butterflies, we can continue to evolve in the most miraculous ways and somehow always find our way.

thumb_img_7388_1024.jpg

 

Advertisements

Old Bagan, New Day

Backpack packed. Breakfast boxed. E-bike charged. Map in hand.

We were ready to step into a world where the past has been preserved on the beautiful plains of Bagan.

thumb_img_7454_1024.jpg

Last night the hotel receptionist circled the temples on our map that are famous for sunrise. But one of the many travel lessons we have learned is to avoid the most popular locations. I told Eric the name of three more secluded sunrise options that I had read about, and we found their locations on our map.

As we rode down a dark, unknown road the headlight of the scooter went out. Great.

No streetlights or headlights. Had a map, but no road signs. The only signs were for temples, but it was too dark to read them. Do we go straight or turn right?

We pulled over. Both of us looked at two paper maps and one big map on the side of the road. A local on a motorbike stopped to point us in the right direction.

We rode north for a couple of minutes. Then we pulled over again to check the map. The same guy circled us with his motorbike. He offered to help, but he was also trying to lure us to a different temple than the one we wanted to see. It made me uneasy that he followed us. Yeah, we could have used some help, but he kept trying to convince us to go in the opposite direction, like we were as ignorant as fish that bite the sharp hook disguised by a worm.

We’ve been through situations like this before, when it seems like someone wants to help, yet they take us somewhere we wouldn’t choose to be, usually out of the way, and then ask us to pay them. The roads were empty because it was still so early. I told Eric I didn’t trust the guy, and we started the bike.

Now we headed east. Time was running out as the sky’s deep, dark blue hue began to lighten. We didn’t want to miss sunrise, so we pulled over to ask an older couple at the entrance of another temple. When we stopped the bike the man immediately asked for money to enter, even though we already paid for tickets to explore the archeological zone.

We expressed that we just needed help and didn’t want to enter this particular temple. The couple couldn’t speak English, but they understood the name of the temple I was looking for. They used their hands and body language to help direct us.

We headed west then south… backwards. I finally realized we needed to read the signs for temples. Sounds simple, but they were small, dark, and by the dozens… or hundreds. Because we didn’t have a headlight, we had to slow down, pull over, and shine light on each sign.

Somehow we got lucky when we saw the sign for Lowka Oushang. It was closed, but just across a dirt road, a stone’s throw away, stood a tall stupa with stairs carved onto each side. We climbed to the second tier and sat beside each other with our boxed breakfasts.

thumb_IMG_7259_1024

The famous and popular Shwesandaw stood in the distance, and dozens of tourists in colorful shirts crowded together on its upper level awaiting sunrise. I was grateful only three other people were on the stupa with us. It was quiet and intimate.

We sat together on top of this ancient structure as the night turned to day. Clouds prevented us from seeing the sunrise, but it was still a spectacular view of the pagodas and temples peeking over the dark green crowns of trees. Behind the distant morning mist we could see the outline of mountains that loom over the Irrawady river like hazy shadows.

thumb_IMG_7461_1024.jpg

Watching the sky and earth from the edge of this man-made monument, I felt a sense of wonder.. and curiosity.. and absurdity to ever know or understand the mysteries that stand before us, beneath us, and all around.

Could all of these structures really have been built to honor Buddha? Why are they placed so sporadically all over this particular city? Were the builders trying to communicate with someone or something above?

The peaks of even the smallest stupas reach higher than the trees. The big temples look like Kingdoms with a capital K, which makes sense since they were constructed under the orders of kings.

Rendering feelings of peace, awe, and confusion, I thought, “Where in the world are we?” It was all so interesting, and the day had only begun.

thumb_IMG_7462_1024

After sunrise we drove around without any destinations in mind. We just rode.

thumb_IMG_7331_1024

Turning on curved, dirt roads with the map tucked in Eric’s pocket, we saw stupa-ruins rising above the canopies of tamarind and palm trees. We saw the majestic silhouette of mountains scaling in the distance, and I wished we could get closer to them.

The first temple we went inside was Thagya Hit.

thumb_IMG_7453_1024

A large statue of Buddha sat behind an abandoned alter. The temple’s keeper, a small man who was eager to share his knowledge, shined his flashlight on the walls, revealing original eight-hundred-year-old art. As he shined his flashlight and led us through the temple, a coiled snake startled me. But after a closer look we saw that the reptilian creature was actually a pair of mating lizards. With their bodies entwined they appeared to make the infinity symbol.

We looked up at the Buddha image etched into the walls with an eroded face. The keeper said it cracked off during an earthquake in 1975. It was strange how the face was the only part affected by the disaster . . .

The temple’s keeper led us up a hidden stairwell. Standing on the top tier of Thagya Hit we could see the Irawaddy River enclosed by pagoda-studded hills. The keeper pointed to the north. “Mandalay,” he said. Then he pointed to the southwest, “Yangon.”

The Irawaddy, also called the Ayeyardwady, flows north to south into the Indian Ocean. From the second story of the temple we could see the tallest pagodas in Bagan. The keeper pointed to an imposing monument in the distance. “Htilominlo,” he said.

thumb_IMG_7463_1024.jpg

We went there next. The Htilominlo Temple, a massive monument built in 1218, was named after King Htilominlo. Inside were four Buddha statues facing the cardinal directions. People kneeled before the shrines, praying with incense and lotus offerings.

thumb_IMG_7264_1024thumb_img_7277_1024.jpg

Faded murals of Buddha were illustrated on the walls. My favorite parts of this temple were the tiles that tell stories with scenes from the Jataka tales. In Sanskrit, Jataka means “birth history.” The scenes portray images that represent the life of Siddharta Gautama. There was a charming quality to the tarnished art within the damaged walls.

thumb_IMG_7465_1024

thumb_IMG_7452_1024thumb_IMG_7270_1024thumb_IMG_7275_1024

We continued riding down random dirt paths, each one leading us to another temple or pagoda. Stupas substituted power lines. Pagoda crowns rose to the clouds like skyscrapers.

Almost all of the pagodas are topped with a spired ornament called a hti, which means umbrella. The hti represents protection of the Three Jewels; the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

thumb_IMG_7455_1024.jpg

Out next stop was Shwegugyi Pagoda. Shwegugyi, meaning “the Golden Cave,” was built in the 11th century while Bagan was under the reign of King Alaungsithu. Giant, ancient teak doors were propped open at each entry. Cracks reached like rivers of veins from the walls to the ceilings from the 1975 earthquake. Original Sanskrit inscriptions and Pali poems were engraved on the walls.

thumb_IMG_7284_1024.jpg

After exploring the temple we bought a sand painting from a teenaged girl named Eirzer. She had completed hundreds of pieces, which made me wonder whether or not she goes to school.

“My family is very poor so I cannot go to school. I help my family by making art,” she told us.

Eirzer has never been to school, but she speaks English well, knows some Thai, and is a wonderful artist. She even explained the cultural, mythological, and religious meanings of her creations.

IMG_20170724_190828_749

Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest pagoda in Bagan, could be seen towering over trees from most of the other temples. Thatbyinnyu, meaning “the Omniscient,” was built in the 12th century. The name represents the state Buddha achieved through meditation, an omnipresence through time and space.

thumb_IMG_7468_1024

Adjacent to Thatbyinnyu stands Ananda temple, one of Bagan’s most visited temples. The name was derived from Siddhartha Gautama’s first cousin and loyal companion, Ananda. In Pali Sanskrit, Ananda means “bliss.”

We experienced a strange moment of synchronicity at Ananda. At the entrance hallway, we stopped to look at books about the culture and art of Myanmar. Suddenly the shop keeper handed Eric Burmese Days by George Orwell. At first we were like, “What the….?” Because out of ALL the books she had, she handed Eric one by his favorite author. It was almost creepy. “How did she know?” we thought. She wasn’t even haggling, or annoying us, or trying to get us to buy anything. She just handed it to him and turned away. Then we were like, “Whoa… what just happened?” It was a magically aligned moment.

Of course we bought it as a souvenir.

Within Ananda are four standing Buddhas facing the four directions of a compass. The statues of Buddha are made from teak and adorned with gold leaf.

Kassapa and Kakusandha, the south and north-facing statues of standing Buddha, are said to be original. Both replicas have hands placed in dhammachakka or dharmachakra, a mudra that symbolizes the Buddha’s first sermon, teaching the path to nirvana.

thumb_IMG_7308_1024.jpg

Kongamana, the east-facing image of Buddha, holds between the thumb and middle finger a small pill-like sphere. This mudra symbolizes Buddha offering the cure to suffering. The photos unfortunately do not capture the great height of these statues.

thumb_IMG_7466_1024.jpg

Gautama, the west-facing image of Buddha, is displayed with his hands in abhaya mudra. This mudra symbolizes peace, benevolence, and fearlessness. It is said that this gesture was used by Siddharta Guatama when he was attacked by an elephant.

There is a sad legend about the monks who designed the Ananda temple. Eights monks came to King Kyanzittha seeking alms. They told the king about the temple where they meditated in the Himalayas. King Kyanzittha invited them to his palace to receive a detailed description of the temple. He then requested to have the Nandamula Cave temple re-created on the Bagan plains. After the Ananda temple was constructed, King Kyanzittha had the architects killed so the temple could not be imitated anywhere else.

* * *

While admiring the beauty and magnificence of the temples, one can’t help but think about the labor involved to build such masterpieces. The temples were built under the order of kings. People worked like slaves.

Eric and I pondered the deeper meaning of Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama would not want to see people slaving and suffering under the ruling of kings to build these magnificent structures used for worship. He did not want to be worshipped.

Siddhartha meditated under trees, in the mountains, beside rivers. Not in giant temples built by poor men under royal rulers, where people sell incense and golden leaves to place on larger-than-life statues.

thumb_IMG_7451_1024.jpg

Somehow the truths and philosophies of Buddhism got buried beneath rituals and religious ideas.

* * *

It was a day of recovery and discovery, exploration and imagination. So much, yet so little remains of these archaeological masterpieces. Some of the monuments have survived a thousand years, and we felt lucky to see them with our own eyes, to learn the history, to experience the culture.

At the end of the day we started hunting a perfect spot to watch the sunset. Because we seek seclusion, we didn’t want to go to the Shwesandaw temple, famous for the sunset views. Riding down dirt roads without direction or a destination, we discovered a hidden treasure. We climbed to the top of the ancient pagoda to watch the sun’s descent behind the stupa-studded horizon.

thumb_img_7381_1024-e1500970082217.jpg

Pagodas peeked over the plains.

thumb_IMG_7329_1024thumb_IMG_7326_1024

We were on an adventure.. Physically, we were tourists sitting on an archaeological wonder. But as we sat there, I kept contemplating… questioning stories I had read, and creating stories of my own. As I looked at the Earth adorned with these sacred, ancient structures, I made up theories about why they were built. I went on my own inner adventure.

thumb_IMG_7467_1024

I was lost in the beauty and colors and confusion of the mystery of being. So much doesn’t make sense, but I’m addicted to the confusion…

And he, my Eric, my partner in this magnificent life journey, was golden. He was enchanting.

thumb_IMG_7317_1024

I was enchanted. The images of Old Bagan are distilled into my memories.

 

Bumps in Bagan

It’s been a bumpy ride to say the least, not just because of the road conditions, which made the five-hour ride feel like a detour down a rocky backroad. That’s how long it takes on a bus from Mandalay to Bagan.

When we arrived by plane to Myanmar we quickly realized we weren’t fully prepared for this brief expedition to Old Bagan, the land of over 2,200 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries.

thumb_IMG_7372_1024

Mandalay International Airport doesn’t offer wifi, which squashed our laughable plan of getting a Grab or Uber like we’ve done during our other SE Asia trips. It’s now embarrassing  to admit we thought we could simply catch an Uber, because even finding a taxi was a difficult, expensive headache.

We eventually bought two tickets for an hour long van ride to the Mandalay bus station. From there, we were told, we could catch another bus towards Bagan. Imagine a gravel and dirt lot lined with open shacks, no signs, and a bunch of locals eating, talking, and spitting betel on the ground. One of those shacks was the bus station, although there was nothing to distinguish it from the others.

We were the only tourists in sight, and all eyes were on us. “How do we even buy a water?” I thought. Somehow we managed to find the “bus station.” There were no signs or price lists, so it was one of those situations where you just have to trust a stranger’s word. Once again we approached a language barrier, but found our way over it and onto a bus after paying 18000 kyats.

Looking out the window was like watching an unfamiliar film as I observed settings that were so different than the world I know. Locals squatted under trees that seemed to be the only source of shade for miles. Fisherman stood chest deep in rivers with their bamboo rods. No tall buildings or intersecting paved roads. No traffic lights or shopping malls. No billboards or 7 Elevens or stores. Just thatch-roofed huts selling golden mangos that overflowed from weaved baskets.

Instead of pants, men wore longyis, which are the traditional sheets of cloth worn around the waist by Burmese men and women. Instead of makeup created in factories, women wore a cosmetic paste called thanaka, which they make by grinding matured Thanaka trees and mixing the grounds with water. It is antifungal, has a sandalwood scent, and is used for cosmetic beauty and sun protection. Thanaka paste has been used by Burmese women for over 2,000 years and is a distinguishing element of Myanmar culture.

thumb_img_7276_1024.jpg

Scenes that seemed fictional reeled in reality. Women carried on top of their heads an assortment of snacks I’ve never tasted. They looked so poised and graceful with their heads held high and shoulders pressed down and back. One lady turned, looked from left to right, and ran across the road, all without dropping the items precariously propped on her head. Her sense of balance alluded me.

It was a humbling sight as other women walked across sunny fields with bundles of bamboo bent over their shoulders. The women were so small yet so strong, and I admired their strength.

A pair of young men squatted in the dirt weaving palm leaves and sticks into roofs and fences. “We could learn so much from these people,” I thought.

I realized this would be a new experience for Eric and me. No one on the bus could speak English, nor could the bus station employees. So, not only were we unsure of our arrival time, but where exactly the bus would drop us was also a mystery.

“Are they taking us to our hotel or to another bus station?” I asked Eric.

“I don’t know, probably another station,” he responded.

* * *

Five hours later we arrived at another bus station. We made it to Bagan! Some locals greeted us and then led us to a truck taxi called a lain ka. Riding in the back, we looked out into darkness for twenty minutes before reaching a town with streetlights, restaurants, and hotel signs. It was crazy to see how dressed-up the tourist areas were, especially compared to the small towns we passed on the bus.

It was now late, and we still had to check in and organize our scooter rental for the morning. As soon as we put our backpacks down, we laid on the bed with our legs up the wall. Inverting after long days has become a ritual. We could literally feel the synthesized energy in our feet and ankles trickle down our legs.

Even though our hotel had five stars in cleanliness, a mildewy smell came from the bathroom, and the tiles were moldy. Inside the room, mosquitoes were drawn to me like jing-joks to night light. I already couldn’t wait to get back to our comfortable, convenient condo in Bangkok.

During our travels, we’ve stayed in some rough rooms, including a thatched hut in Cambodia. I hoped that traveling would help me overcome some of my OCD tendencies. But I still feel that distracting discomfort when I’m in a place that doesn’t feel clean. I was already getting bitten by mosquitos just sitting on the bed.. I just felt uncomfortable.

I started thinking about the Burmese houses without plumbing that I saw from the bus. I felt grateful for the showers I take at home and decided to take this shower with the simple intention to wash my body. The shower didn’t need to be clean or comfortable.. It just needed to have soap and water.

We hadn’t eaten a “square meal,” as Eric would call it, all day. We took the map given by the hotel front desk and walked the dark roads to a late dinner at 7 Sisters, a nearby restaurant run by seven local sisters.

By the end of the long, expensive day that we thought would be short, cheap, and easy, I just wanted to lay my head on Eric’s familiar chest.

I guess we didn’t really prepare ourselves for this trip, which was supposed to be a painless ‘visa run.’ At first, visa runs were fun. They were an excuse and opportunity to explore SE Asia. We researched and put a lot of thought and planning into the trips. Now several trips later, the intoxication of the nomadic life has faded into a need for balance and stability.

Though we wanted to stay in Thailand, we had to hop across the border. So we planned a last minute trip to Thailand’s neighbor, Myanmar. We thought it would be the most inexpensive and quickest option. Mandalay was the cheapest flight promotion through Air Asia, and we both wanted to see the archaeological zone in Old Bagan. So we booked it.

And even though it was a stressful day.. we made it. Traveling and living in Asia has helped us learn how to adapt and make it through unknown, uncomfortable situations. A sense of accomplishment arises when we have to adapt and improvise without things we usually depend on like wifi, google maps, and spoken communication. We made it here without any of those things.

Monarch butterflies on their great migration don’t carry maps or follow signs, but somehow they arrive at their destination. They don’t teach their offspring the route, yet somehow they too can follow the same path. We need to get back to the nature within us.

Tomorrow we will wake up at 4:45 to see the sun rise over Bagan. It will all be worth it.

thumb_IMG_7376_1024

 

 

On Marriage and Children

Here I have transcribed page 95 from Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. I bolded the font to emphasize my favorite parts. Creating life through love is perhaps the most mysterious and beautiful idea that crosses my mind’s path. If you read my first blog under the “travel diary” menu, these are the pages Eric shared with me on the plane. Hope you find it as insightful as we did!

Screen Shot 2017-07-01 at 9.30.27 AM.png

On Marriage and Children

I have a question for you alone, my brother: I throw this question like a plummet into your soul, to discover how deep it is.

You are young and desire marriage and children. But I ask you: are you a man who ought to desire a child?

Are you a victor, the self-conqueror, the ruler of your senses, the lord of your virtues? Thus I ask you.

Or do animal and necessity speak from your desire? Or isolation? Or disharmony with yourself?

I would have your victory and your freedom long for a child. You should build living memorials to your victory and your liberation.

You should build beyond yourself. But first you must be built yourself, square-built in body and soul. 

You should propagate yourself not only forward, but upward! May the garden of marriage* help you to do it!

You should create a higher body, a first motion, a self-propelling wheel – you should create a creator.

Marriage: that I call the will of two to create the one who is more than those who created it. Reverence before one another, as before the willers of such a will — that I call marriage. 

Let this be the meaning and the truth of your marriage. But that which the many-too-many, the superfluous, call marriage – ah, what shall I call it? 

Ah, this poverty of soul in partnership! Ah, this filth of soul in partnership! Ah, this miserable ease in partnership!

All this they call marriage, and they say their marriages are made in Heaven. 

Well, I do not like it, this Heaven of the superfluous! No, I do not like them, these animals caught in the heavenly net!

And let the God who limps hither to bless what he has not joined stay far from me!

* * *

(On page 96, Nietzsche continues with brutal honesty about such marriages that he calls “a little dressed-up lie.” He does, after all, have a rep for sharing his unfiltered, entirely honest philosophies and thoughts. In this transcription I have left out some of his stark descriptions on what some men call their marriage. However, I will share the end of the page where he shares what he calls a marriage.)

* * *

One day you shall love beyond yourselves! So first learn to love! For that you have had to drink the bitter cup of your love.

There is bitterness in the cup of even the best love: thus it arouses longing for the Superman*, thus it arouses thirst in you, the creator!

A creator’s thirst, arrow, and longing for the Superman: speak, my brother, is this your will to marriage?

I can call holy such a will and such a marriage.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

 

* Superman is the term Nietzche uses to name the human embodiment of divinity.

* The beauty of reading is making our own interpretations. Nietzche says, “May the garden of marriage help you to do it.” I believe the garden of love is the true force that will help us propagate ourselves forward and upward.