Sunday, February 17, 2008

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 . . .

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