Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I am coming home soon

I have received a number of emails in the last few weeks of the flavor -- gee, Travis, I know you are having a great time and all -- but are you ever going to come back home? Well, I am pleased to announce that I have bought a return ticket to the USA and will arrive on Thursday, March 6. This will be about a 30 hour door to door odyssey and the cost was around $700. My first destination will be the San Francisco Bay Area to see some friends and then a few days later I am flying "home" to the San Diego area.

My main priorities will be spending time with family and friends. Logistical life issues include doing my taxes, setting up a proper mail forwarding address, making some minor portfolio tweaks, quickly getting a pay-as-you-go mobile phone plan set up with a new quad band phone, and planning my next few trips this year.

My brilliant and beautiful sister Pam has signed me up for the Carlsbad 5K (50 kilometers north of San Diego) in early April -- a race that her and my cousin Michelle will also be running. This will give me an incentive to get back in running shape right away (self respect and shameful hubris wouldn't allow me to lose to girls from my own family!).

I flew back to Chiang Mai, Thailand (in the north of the country) yesterday and I have already been having a blast here with friends. I definitely love this place and it will be hard to leave. The people and the weather are just wonderful here.

It is hard for me to describe my experiences in a blog. I really only touch the surface here and it makes me feel like I am cheating readers, not to mention that I really don't take that many pictures, and if I tried to document everything it would be a book and then some. I really don't describe many of my ordinary day to day activities, like wonderful time spent with friends, as I should.

But I do hope to add a few more stories and pictures after I return to the USA where I will probably have more spare time. I still have some amazing experiences from Myanmar to share.

Playing with the kids at a Myanmar monastery where we spent the night:

Also, I am sure that I will have some serious reflecting to do as the culture shock of returning to the USA and leaving Asia hits me head on. And I guess I might have to wear long pants sometimes, at least if my weather.com checks of California weather are not lying to me.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hobo Traveler

Before leaving for Myanmar, Dave and I met Andy, the man behind the well known hobotraveler web site (and the hobotraveler blog). Who is Andy? Well, Andy quit working a normal job around 11 years ago when he was about 40 years old. He decided to start traveling and he has never stopped since then. He comes back to the US for a few weeks every year. He documents his travels and budget travel tips on his web site. At first he was traveling on the super cheap, like maybe for 5000 dollars per year. But he started generating income from his web site and now he is able to travel much more comfortably. Andy's web site now gets over 10,000 unique readers every day!

I first looked at Andy's web site about five years ago. It opened my eyes to the fact that international travel did not have to be expensive at all -- in fact, it is often cheaper than just living in one place in the USA. I had always wanted to travel more and realized that it was easily within my grasp to see the world. People in the West have this idea that vacations have to be expensive or luxurious -- but for me that is not the best way to travel because it would mean that my vacations would have to be short and spending all that cash creates a barrier between me and the local people. Most package tourists end up spending a lot of money and only meeting English speaking hotel staff without much exposure to the local culture.

Well, naturally, I had always wanted to meet Andy -- but he refuses most meeting requests since he gets so many. But we had some interests in common and had communicated over time on a number of topics and so Dave and I met with Andy and his girlfriend in Bangkok. Andy is starting a new web site called hobohideout that allows hotel owners to easily catalog their hotels on the internet and he wanted to bounce some ideas off of techie travelers.

Andy is a person who says exactly what he thinks and is never, ever politically correct and so the conversations can get entertaining! I should mention that there is no picture of Andy here since he has a no picture policy -- when he criticizes places or people he will sometimes get threats and so he chooses to maintain some privacy.

I met with Andy several more times after Dave left. Andy knows everything about how Google's cataloging of web sites works and he even outsources most of the techie work to a programmer that he has groomed in India giving him lots of spare time. I felt like he had a good head for business and was a good salesman like most successful businessmen.

After meeting with Andy, I realized that I am sometimes too introverted when I travel and I am often not frank enough in my own writing and speaking. Well, those are things I need to work on ;-) Anyway, I felt like Andy really enjoyed talking with us and he made plenty of time to discuss whatever we wanted. Thanks, Andy!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Elena smokes a Myanmar stogie

Myanmar makes some interesting little cigars called cheroots that some folks there seem to relish. They are made everywhere. Elena decided to smoke one (I have never smoked even a single cigarrete and was not about to start now!). She said they were actually OK! Well, you be the judge:

We encountered these in a hut in a small native village near Lake Inle.
Cheroot is one of the distinctive icons of Myanmar. These cigars are made with a blend of tobacco and fragrant wood chips, then rolled up using a dried green leaf called the 'tha nat phet'. After adding a filter made of corn husks, the cheroot is ready to be smoked and is without the addition of harsh chemicals. They are mostly hand made by women in the Inle Lake region.

Anyway, as we were leaving Myanmar, in Elena's baggage I could not help but notice a wad of carefully wrapped Myanmar stogies!!

Meeting D.J. and Catherine in Yangon

Our trip to Myanmar was bookended by dinners with D.J. and Catherine. D.J. is principal of the International School of Yangon and Catherine is the librarian. They have worked their way around the world by holding teaching positions in many countries. We first met through the couchsurfing web site.

Here we are for our first dinner in a fancy Yangon Restaurant (total bill of $32, including tip, that is about as expensive as it gets in Myanmar ;-):

Here is our dinner at their house on our last night in Myanmar:

There is just something about meeting Americans on the road that I love (and I meet so few). And D.J. and Catherine had great insight into Burmese culture and what it is like to live and work around the world. They also both speak passable Mandarin. Their next post is Hong Kong starting in late summer. Thanks so much for your hospitality!

By the way, I have had various friends over the years who were teachers in the USA. One thing that I have suggested to them is that a great way to make money and expose your kids to different cultures and a great education is to make a living as international teachers. You can save most of your salary since the schools usually provide your housing (and many other things) in addition to providing you with a generous salary. Most worldwide international schools teach their curriculum in English. They get the summers off (and usually a plane ticket home is provided for you and your family).

Monday, February 18, 2008

The power is out again

As I mentioned earlier, consisent power is a problem everywhere in Myanmar. So at night it can gets quite dark around town. Here is a picture of the night market in the large town of Mandalay. The market had a few portable generators for power and used fluorescent lighting:

We scored some decent winter caps (Myanmar can get cold!) there for the equivalent of 60 US cents.

Many small restaurants do not have generators. Elena and I were desperate for Indian food (OK, it was mostly me!) and the only one open in the small town of Nyaung Shwe did not have a generator -- but the food was great! Here I am sitting at our table waiting for the food (we were the only customers) -- hey, you gotta have a sense of humor about these things . . .
A typical scenario in a smaller town was that a restaurant would be dark until someone showed up. As we were being seated, we would hear someone start the generator in the back and the lights would go on. We expected that to happen at this restaurant but we realized after awhile that we would be eating by candlelight.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hair cut and transport in Yangon

In Yangon we met Kaun, a tour guide looking for work:
As we toured the country, we were approached by several people who were tour guides. But unlike in some other countries that we visited, none of them were really scam artists. They were genuinely trying to help and make a little money in exchange for useful information. The decline of tourism has really hurt the ordinary people here. In fact, it was a unanimous opinion of both the Burmese and expats that we talked with that the economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar do nothing to change the political situation and only cause suffering among the local people.

The real irony is that this was probably the best time possible to visit Myanmar. Myanmar is actually a very safe country, much safer than many other countries that I have visited. If you want good reasons to not visit Myanmar, transportation hassles, lack of reliable electronic communication, and power outages would have to be at the top of the list whereas safety is not an issue at all.
We went for a tea with Kaun (a common activity here; tea shops are everywhere and we partook frequently) and he offered to help us with any of our needs at no financial obligation (naturally, we ended up giving him something). He also wrote us a list of recommended accomodations at each of our future stops in Myanmar. Well, I desperately needed a haircut -- I was so busy in Bangkok in my last few days there that I failed to get one before leaving. Elena wanted to call her father to let him know she was OK (her father does not have email). So first we went to the hair stylist:
Hey, at these prices, let's throw in a wash, too!
Long distance calls out of the country cost in the neighborhood of three dollars per minute (even more from our guesthouse). Elena wanted to call her dad to let him know she was OK since he does not do email. Well, she called and got some French guy, but definitely not her dad (or his phone, it was a different number). They verified that the correct number was indeed dialed so we paid the three dollars anyway. Communications are just not reliable here.
During our initial tours around Yangon, we found that we could get just about anywhere in the city for less than two US dollars in Khat. We took a picture of one of the cabs -- hey it got us from Point A to Point B! (Techie note: that is NOT a GPS on the front dashboard but just a picture ;-)

You just gotta love this transportation! I must be smiling because of all that money I am saving! Cheap, comfortable transport -- I am in the zone!

As our trip progressed, Elena started counting different forms of transportation that we took on this Myanmar trip and she counted at least fifteen. We pretty much took every form of land and water transport powered by motors, animals or humans.

Let's meet some locals

Elena and I visited the city of Mandalay near the center of the country. It is a mostly flat city with a single hill overlooking it called Mandalay Hill. And sitting atop the hill, as on almost every majestic hill in this country, is a Buddhist Pagoda. And there are numerous pagodas on the way up the hill. Buddhist culture runs deep in this country and there are pagodas and monks everywhere. According to tradition, one can make up for a lifetime of sins if you build enough pagodas . . . and so you can see why there are so many . . .

We met two lovely 12 year old girls there at the bottom of the hill who were selling postcards:

These girls went with us up the steps of the hill and the temple, about an hour walk. What struck us about them is that they were so incredibly joyful about life. They both no longer attend school due to lack of funds and so raise money for their families by selling postcards. So many people in the world who have so much more are unhappy but these girls really lifted our spirits by their wonderful attitude about life and you can see it in their pictures. Here they are with Elena and then me:

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention that that white substance on so many people's faces. It is called Thanaka

Thanaka is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground wood. In Myanmar, it is commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls and to a lesser extent men and boys.[1][2][3] The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand.[2][3]

The wood of several trees (collectively called thanaka trees) may be used to produce thanaka cream; these trees grow abundantly in central Myanmar.

Thanaka cream has been used by Burmese women for over 2000 years. It has a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood.[2][5] The creamy paste is applied to the face in attractive designs, the most common form being a circular patch on each cheek, sometimes made stripey with the fingers known as thanaka bè gya, or patterned in the shape of a leaf, often also highlighting the bridge of the nose with it at the same time. It may be applied from head to toe (thanaka chi zoun gaung zoun). Apart from cosmetic beauty, thanaka also gives a cooling sensation, provides protection from sunburn, helps remove acne, promotes smooth skin, and is an anti-fungal.

As we were lingering on the top of the hill in the temple, we met a monk named Nan Shave. He approached us as he is learning English and wanted to talk. He had been a monk for many years and his family would come from the countryside to visit him from time to time -- they were currently visiting and he was showing them around the temple. Well, Nan Shave wanted to show Elena and I his monastery a few kilometers away so we could not resist.

Here I am sitting next to Nan Shave near his room at the monastery. In the background are his family, some novice monks, and other visitors that day.

Basically, everyone in this room except Nan Shave was afraid to speak and they hung on every word that I would say. No one spoke much English except for Nan Shave and he would try to translate. What we found in Myanmar is that men are very friendly but that women do not speak to strangers much.

Here are some students learning Pali from a senior monk. Pali is the ancient sanscrit language used to record the Buddhist scriptures:

Some pictures of the monastery:

No one can wear shoes inside a pagoda, temple, or in many areas of a monastery.

Nan Shave actually took us to several other directly adjacent monasteries and introduced us to several other English speakers. I felt like a rock star at times as people peppered me with questions about English and America. My French friend, Elena, felt quite left out at times!

We asked where we could give a donation to help the local people and Nan Shave walked us to a school for orphaned and abandoned girls where we were able to donate money after they gave us a tour through the school. Afterwards, we ate a modest dinner together. It was all quite moving and a day that will not soon be forgotten . . .

Off Topic: Literature on the Road

One thing that I have enjoyed about traveling is that it lends itself to reading some solid literature. There is always downtime while traveling as you rest and relax or while you are on transport. I have done a lot of reading on this trip. I just finished George Orwell's Burmese Days, his first novel, during my trip in Myanmar. It was brilliant and helped me understand that country and its people better. Michael Crichton's autobiography, Travels, helped me to understand how travel might open one's mind to the ideas of different cultures via first hand experience with them. I am currently reading Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian, a brilliant historical novel about life in the British Navy in the early 19th century, etc.

But my favorite piece of writing has always been the following, written by Sullivan Ballou to his wife during his service in the American Civil War. It simultaneously evokes a sense of duty, honor, patriotism, love and eternity, and it has never left me:

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Initial Impressions of Myanmar

As our guesthouse mini-van brought us from the Yangon airport to our guesthouse across town, the alien sights of this country attacked our senses. Men going about their business wearing long skirts called longyis, faces plastered with a white paste I had never seen before, a mixture of cars with steering wheels on the left and right sides, pot-holed roads, monks walking about in their robes, and the sweaty temperature of this city as the morning sun quickly rose along with the temperature. I could tell this was going to be an adventure, I just was not sure whether it would be an epic adventure or one to forget.

That afternoon we made our way down to the central market to change money. The "official" exchange rate is a joke and no one actually exchanges money except on the black market. And the only money generally accepted for exchange here is the US dollar, preferably large denominations for the best rate. There are no ATMs in Myanmar and we never did see anywhere that accepted traveler's checks or credit cards (apparently the latter can only be done by proxy by a Thai affiliate for the few businesses with such a capability). So the US dollars that you bring into the country on your person, all in cash, are all that you are going to be able to spend on your visit here -- there is no other way for a tourist to get money from outside the country. In fact, it is not even legal for Myanmar citizens to save dollars although this is ignored by everyone. For our first money change, we changed a single US $100 dollar bill for 124,500 Kyat (pronounced like Chat). So we received 124 bills of denomination 1000 and a single bill of 500 denomination. This amount of money does not fit into your pocket and you feel like a Colombian drug lord carrying around such a wad of cash.

The wad of Khats in the picture below is worth less than $50 US dollars. We never did see any larger denominations.

One of our early observations was that there are almost no foreign brands here. Even Coca-Cola is imported from Thailand and the words on the can are in Thai sanscrit writing. We never did see a Western chain store of any kind during our visit.

The power was out for most of the day at our guesthouse (which was quite nice at $10 per night), but they have a generator that they often run which is fine except that it does not power the A/C. Any business worth their salt here has a generator. That first evening when we went out, we were shocked to see that the city is mostly dark. We could hear generators which were apparently the power source for most of the scant lighting that we saw. Power is a scarce commodity here, especially consistent power. Even routine walks at night require a torch lamp (thankfully provided by my former co-workers as a going away gift!) If it was like this in the country's wealthiest city, where the Burmese generals who control the country live in relative opulence, what would it be like in the rest of the country?

Although during the anti-government protests in September the media and internet were mostly shut off, I was able to view BBC broadcasts in our guesthouse. Internet access is spotty in the country and accessing email sites requires using proxies which every internet cafe we visited knew exactly how to set up. A mobile phone sim card costs about US $2500 here meaning that almost no one has one. In reality, more outside media broadcasts are allowed here in Myanmar than in a tightly controlled country like China which I discovered during my visit there still maintains a shocking amount of control over the fundamental freedoms of its people.

As we toured the country, the Myanmar that began to emerge is a country where the people are incredibly warm and friendly, a people who have a deep and special admiration for the USA and the beacon of freedom that it represents to them, and a people that thoroughly understand the situation with their oppressive government even if there is nothing that they can do about it.