The Ferry

Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay

Mandalay, Myanmar.

     Beep.Beep.Beep. Uuugghhhh. 4:00 AM. Time to get up and head over to the ferry for the eight-hour, could be seven-hour, but maybe ten-hour, boat ride to Bagan. We should be there by 2:00 PM. Get up, pack it up, head out the door by 4:30. Not that I’m not excited. I love boats, and I have wanted to go to Bagan for years. …it’s just early …with a bit to drink last night. OK, let’s go. Check out. No problem. The staff at the Myit Phyar Ayer Hotel even packed us a boxed breakfast – (not a bad place to stay at all, but after seeing that link I just posted, I had to laugh …maybe I’ll do a short review later). Awesome. Head out the door. Hey, look at that. The tuk-tuk driver we talked to yesterday is actually sitting there. Great. Hop in and head down to the docks.

     Get to the docks …here we go, where’s the dock? There is no dock. But these are “The Docks”. That is correct sir, say the people. The docks with no dock. Aha, Myanmar, almost forgot. The “ticket shack” is jam-packed. A heaving mass of body parts flailing around and fighting for any inch of space that gets that body part a half-inch closer to the way too small window, or hole, in the side of the shack. Everyone fighting for tickets. Touché, we already have our tickets. Yes. The office we got them from said they were the actual tickets, and said we didn’t need anything else, but seeing the “fight to the hole” …I figured we “misunderstood”, but it seems we are the only people in the whole of Myanmar who don’t have to wait in “line” for our tickets. Sweet. Right down the gang-plank and onto the boat, after a few minor purchases of food and drink on the way. Almost the first ones here. Whoops, “not our boat”, says the guy with the big gun, it’s the boat that is docked to this boat that is docked to the gang-plank that leads down from the parking lot, right next to the shack/hole/ticket booth. No problem. Still one of the first to arrive. The on-board “restaurant”, ok, the on-board table with bench and small stove with river water pumped in, not “restaurant”, isn’t even open yet. …not even close. The waitress/busgirl/cashier still sleeping on her mat. We take our seats in the “tourist” section… 

     Note: we actually had to take the “slow boat” as we were told the “fast boat”, or tourist ferry, has actually ceased to run due to the lack of tourists. We were told this, and purchased tickets for the slow boat, two days before. …approximately one hour before we met a nice Swiss couple who told us they just purchased tickets for the “fast boat”. D*mn. Oh well, too late now and everyone else we talked too said the fast boat no longer ran …we’ll see. …end note. (The fast/slow/tourist/local ferry pictured below ↓ ).

     A few minutes later, people start piling on, in, in-between, all-around, all through, and everywhere and anywhere there is an inch of space. Flashbacks to the “ticket shack-hole”. No worries. We have some room. Than, lo and behold, the Swiss couple who purchased tickets for the “fast boat” come trouncing on. Looks like there is a “fast boat”, it just happens to be on the same schedule and moving at the same speed at the same time on the same days as the “slow boat”. I have to smile at them as they give me a sly smile back. It’s all in fun. The boat is scheduled to leave at 6:00 AM. We pull out around 7:00 AM. Not too bad, I call this a win, remembering the ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa, which was supposed to pull out at 7:00 AM, …as we watched the sunset at 6:00 PM from the same exact spot. That’s another story though. As for this one, the typical old, third world type ferry, with plenty of patches, everything well-worn, and looking like it can turn over and sink at any second without an instant of warning. Good enough for me, if not a luxury liner, at least we have coffee. About an hour in you cruise through the hills of Sagaing. Through the outskirts of Mandalay, under modern bridges and power lines. The landscape becomes more and more rural, until, at about 9:00 AM, nothing but fields with the occasional stupa and shrine. It seems like the boat is getting more crowded at this point, with most of the tourists spreading out, stretching their legs, messin’ things up as tourists usually do. I may love boats, travel and ferries, but I hate being packed into a corner. A few more hours of cruising, or more like slowly floating against the water, and we should almost be there. Just watching the sights from the top of the boat, a dead rat floating by here, a bloated dog there. A fisherman here (yes, in a boat, still alive), a kid running on the shore and waving there. 9:05. Cha-ching. The Chinese man behind us calls out the time,”WA-CHA-MY-HA”, at the top of his lungs I may add, as he pulls a bottle of Johnny Walker Black out of his bag with a big smile. The Swiss couple makes it a check as they pull out a bottle of “Myanmar Rum”. Gulp. 9:05, I guess it’s late enough. At least I know how to say “drinkin’ time” in Chinese now. Check that off the bucket list. …as the local Burmese look at us with faces of wonderous “What the heck is going on, are these guys crazy?” kind of stares. A few sips by the older local gentlemen and women and everyone is family, as well as happy and smiling for some reason. PS: the picture to the left up above IS the waitress/cashier/busgirl …more on that later.

     …to the first stop. The village of bananas. Yes, bananas, and I didn’t name it this until after the next few stops, but the reasoning behind the names I picked is because it seemed every village we stopped at had one, and only one, product to sell and trade. It was actually kind of cool. You could see the yellow from about a mile away. The village of watermelons (upcoming) …you could see the green and pink about a mile away, etc, etc. It seemed that the reason this wasn’t considered a “fast boat” was because, well, it was slow to put it mildly, but it also stopped at every village along the way. Every village. At each village, the local “product” would be loaded, off-loaded, traded, sold, bought, eaten and everything else you could do with that particular product. I gotta tell you, it worked. Why bother growing all kinds of different produce when you can just concentrate on one and then use it to trade for the rest. Yes, there are problems with the thinking, big problems, but if it works, it works very well, and it looked like it was working. Back to the bananas. First stop. The boat pulls up, a few feet from the actual shore, because there are no actual docks, and the river is too shallow to pull all the way in …and the gang-planks come out. Stick with me here folks, remember this is the land of docks without a dock. People on shore start running, people on the boat start heaving stuff over the side, everyone is in a panic. It gets real loud. People getting off, people getting on, hawkers up on the boat selling their wares, er, well, bananas. Whole bananas, fried bananas, bagged banana slices, banana sandwiches, banana balls, bananas on sticks, banana salad, banana pie, banana juice, banana chips, dried bananas, banana oil, banana paste – I think you get the idea. Kids running everywhere selling this stuff, weaving in and out of the crowd, in-between chairs, over railings, through legs, around backpacks, like a little munchkin banana army wielding an array of banana products. “You buy Banana!” “Cheap, Cheap”. Nothing but a few kyat will fend them away, you can’t hide, they’ll find you. You can’t climb, they’ll reach you. You can’t run, they’ll catch you (not that you could even move on the boat at this point). At one point I think I had one stuck to each leg, stabbin’ me with bananas in the shins, trying to trade for my camera, for my hat, for my flip-flops, one on my back, “I trade for you hair”. A few shakes of the legs, and I am free… I teach one to say “AArrrggghhhh”, another “Ahoy Matey”. A few I teach to say, when asked their names, to answer “Jack Sparrow”. A loud chorus of “JACK SPAWWO” goes roaring through the boat.

     The waitress/busgirl/cashier is standing on a table at this point, actually I should say “the” table, long metal spoon in hand, seeming to rally her fellow munchkins, playing Queen of the Munchkin Banana Pirate Army as her troops create havic all-around. I want to give her my “I’m a Pirate in Real Life” t-shirt, but realize I left it at home… A few more long, loud, hectic, very amusing, minutes later, the horn blows, the gang-planks are pulled in, the munchkin banana pirate army exits the boat anyway they can, like a bunch of plundering munchkin banana pirates should, being done with their mission. Down the already moving gang-planks, over the side, through the rails, jumping off the bow, the stern, the roof, bananas scattering everywhere, kids screaming in happiness as they play Pirate’s of the Irrawaddy. Yelling back at the boat, arms, and bananas, waving in the air, the ferry passengers egging them on. I hear an “Aaarrghhh” in the distance, a few Jack Spawwo’s running around the shore, all the while thinking about the next ferry that stops by :). The crowd on shore laughs, gathers their munchkin pirates, money, mini Jack Spawwos, and bananas up, and disperses till the next opportunity to attack comes (wish I was there for that). Everyone is in a happy mood again as the boat pulls away, without a tourist on the boat knowing what the heck just happened. Were we just attacked by munchkin banana pirates? How do they know who got on, who got off and who may be stuck on the boat from the village? Where did they put all those bananas? What if some are still on the roof and waiting to sneak attack? Why is this kid next to me still trying to get my empty bottles? Who owns this kid? Did you see any of the munchkin pirates swinging by a rope to get off? I think one is hiding in my backpack. Why is there a banana in my back pocket? Where is that Rum?

…and it doesn’t end here. This is just the beginning of the Ferry to Bagan. Stay tuned for more. It only gets better, or, well, worse, or both, or neither, depending on how you look at it. Next stop, the village of watermelons…

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar IX – The Almost Perfect Storm

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Baan Tong Luang, Mae-Rim, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

     Ever hear that saying? That’s exactly what I’m thinking here. I wonder what this woman is thinking as she is looking in the mirror. I know she was a Proud woman, and has every right to be, and she has a very pleasant expression as she looks at herself. But I just wonder, and would love to know what she is thinking as she looks at her reflection. Just one of those moments I guess…

August 24, 2009

Jambiya Sellers of Sana’a

Sana’a, Yemen.

Jambiya 3     Yes, I can proudly say I have been to, survived, and thoroughly enjoyed Yemen. What a country. So different from any other place I have been too. Exotic isn’t even the word for it. Mythical may be a better word for it. Cut off from the world, almost seemingly to be lost in time in places. Adventure, you got it. Excitement, around every corner. History, Culture, Nature …everywhere. The capital, Sana’a, one of the highest capitals in the world, founded somewhere around the 6th century BC (yes, BC), with a city center that I can only equate to looking and feeling like a life-size gingerbread house city, is simply outstanding. Walking these streets is an unexplainable feeling. Here is a place where you actually could almost be walking through time. Small alleyways in-between ancient mud brick houses which resemble ancient skyscrapers, tipped with elaborate friezes and white alabaster covered window frames framing out intricate stained glass windows. Turn a corner, a group of camels tied in the street. A man in “full garb” riding around the next, crossbow on his back, Jambiya in his belt, at full gallop, sword flailing at the camels side, face and head covered in cloth. Simply fantastic.

     Ok, this post isn’t simply about Yemen, or Sana’a. They will come over the next few weeks. This post is about the Jambiya, and the Jambiya sellers around Sana’a. Maybe getting ahead of myself already, you may be asking yourself “What the heck is a Jambiya?” A Jambiya, well, basically its a thick, around a foot long, dagger which Yemeni men carry strapped to the waist. The Jambiya positioned right in front on the belt. Pronounced JAM-bee-yah, this is often a man’s prized possession, historically passed down from father to son for generations. Historically, it was a weapon, a symbol of regional origin and social status, and an informal investment plan, since the daggers nearly always appreciate with time. Maybe the first thing you will notice strolling through any town in Yemen, and always displayed with pride. I gotta say, it is quite an intimidating and spectacular display too. …and if you haven’t noticed yet, I love this stuff. This is real manly man, no BS, I carry around a foot long razor blade sharp knife like it’s the 5th century kind of stuff… Love it. Adventure at its finest!!! Alright, back to reality. You can’t miss the Jambiya, and although quite intimidating, I found the sellers of these knives to be quite a cordial bunch. Head to Bab al’ Yemen, the Gate of Yemen, the main entrance into old Sana’a, and beyond you can find shop after shop of Jambiya sellers. PS: make sure you are still looking up as you pass through the gate. I don’t condone it, and it may not be right, but they still occasionally hang the bodies or heads of child molesters, thieves and other law breakers on the gate there. …suffice it to say, not much crime in Yemen when I was there. …and I told ya, like stepping back in time.

     OK, head past the gate, through the square, and into the markets. Past the Qat dealers, the sweets and candy shops. Intertwined throughout the market streets and alleyways. A little yell here, an Asalaam Alaikum there. Don’t worry about all the guys with AK’s over their shoulders, it’s just normal here. Three guns for every man, woman and child in the country at last count. It’s an honor thing. Everyone is nice enough, actually one of the “nicer” people I’ve met. Respond to some of those greetings, don’t worry that the man behind the counter is wearing a foot long knife, surrounded by foot long knives, as people with foot long knives try to make their way around you, as you are knocked by the butts and barrels of their Ak’s :) It’s just how it is here. Did I mention I love Yemen?

     Give it your best shot. “Let me see that Jambiya”. Na, don’t like that one. “How bout that one”. Don’t be shy, don’t be intimidated. It’s just a market, just like any other market, souk, mall or shopping center in any other country. This is the true adventurers mall! Don’t like this shop, move to the next. Smile, be happy, don’t offer if you’re not happy or really don’t want. It’ the market game. They’ll try to get you to offer, but you don’t have too. There are plenty of Jambiya shops and sellers, each one just a bit nicer and accommodating than the last …I’ve seen this game before. Have fun, ask questions, laugh, joke and exaggerate. Accept and enjoy the tea offered …yes, this is the Arabian Peninsula remember. Drinking the tea doesn’t mean you have to buy. This is just Arabian Peninsula hospitality!!! Thank them for the tea. They will almost always let you walk away unscathed by words …this isn’t one of those tourist markets either. Go to the next stall. Look, smile, communicate and learn and have fun. If you want to know the history of the Jambiya, just ask. From what I saw and heard, these guys are almost always just plain happy to explain their culture and the meaning of the Jambiya to foreigners, and almost always just as interested in you as you are in their wares. “What country are you from?”. “How do you like Yemen?”. “I hope you find Yemen is a great country”. All too often I had to answer yes to that last question. A great country. A truly honorable people. A place I thought only existed in dreams. A word of advice – if you don’t want to buy, just say so up front. No harm done. You have to remember this is still an economy, and market, driven by commerce. I found that these guys were actually more willing, more than any other country I’ve been too, to just talk. They were actually just interested in talking to a western foreigner more than anything else even after you told them you didn’t want to buy. Their business based on honor, like just about everything else in the country. Would they try to sell you a Jambiya during, or after, the conversation, even after you said this? Of course. But it would come with a smile and not the kind of exchange often encountered with more travelled kind of countries? …most definitely yes. You just laugh, smile and point out that you said you didn’t want to buy, and the seller almost always just poured another cup of tea and laughed back, continuing the conversation without another word of sale forthcoming. That said …I bought that one in the middle in the picture on the right. I also bought two more. Hmmm, maybe I did get had… If so, all in fun, and souvenirs I will never, ever, ever, regret buying. These guys were great, and Yemen was just outstanding. I can only hope to go back one day, considering it the most exotic country I have ever visited. Until than, I hope these guys keep selling. The country keeps going, and the world doesn’t encroach on the culture too much, as this is a country truly lost in time. I love Yemen. I have even been made fun of for spending money on visiting Yemen, but I only have to laugh at that. If people only knew, all the while hoping that not too many people find out…

     As an afterthought – it may sound like a very dangerous country, but just like any other – use common sense. The people I met in Yemen were some of the nicest, kindest, and most accomodating people I have ever met. Yes, there are guns galore. Yes, there are automatic weapons carried around nonchalantly like you would carry around a cellphone in New York. I think you just have to realize it’s not New York. This is what travel is all about, at least to me. Something different, exotic, interesting. Just because you carry a gun, doesn’t mean you use it. I find this to be more of the thinking in Yemen than I see in the US. It’s a matter of prestige, honor and culture. People are people, no matter where. As for Yemenis, I can actually say that they try and hold themselves higher than most. It’s a great country. It’s just as dangerous as any other, if not more, but honestly, sometimes less, even when surrounded by knives and guns.

No Butts

Taken on the Niger River somewhere in between Mopti and Timbuktu, Mali.

     This one from the top of the boat, or pinasse (I’ll explain that in a future post). Maybe the “safest”, if not the overall best place to stay on a trip up the Niger River. Why the safest? …you see the kids in the villages along the Niger River, and you’ll know what I mean. Ever have a 50 Lb. ball of smiling, almost always naked, energy  flying at you at a full force run… You’ll see. Not dangerous, per say, but a kid who doesn’t have a toy and knows that: boat full of people = toy …toy being an empty plastic bottle. Holy Smackatoly. A few hippos in the way …they don’t care. Seriously. They do not care. This shot taken from above as three of these “balls of energy” lunge into the pinasse to “explain why they should get the empty bottles”. One of the fondest memories of my trip through Mali. The kids are, simply, awesome, for lack of a better word. Balls of energy ready to explode into full sprint at the slightest hint of fun. …here they have launched themselves out of the water like three crazy dolphins, and nothing is going to stop them from acquiring a few toys before they hop back in the water.

March 5, 2008

The Bucket List

     I see these things everywhere. A new fad I guess. Everyone has a “Bucket List”. Everyone wants to do this, that or the other thing. Most of the time I would say, well, stop making lists and start doing these things. A bucket list gets you no further in completing the list other than wasting some more time writing it down so other people know what you haven’t done and will probably never do. But. Yes, always a but. I figured what the heck, may as well join the crowd this one time in my life, so here is mine – and don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting ones out there and I do have to admit, I read a lot of them and many seem very well thought out. Not dissing the list, just putting my unasked for and probably unwanted thoughts out there, and joining the crowd in my own criticism. OK, here it is:

√   1) Join the crowd at least once in my life
√   2) Go to Afghanistan
√   3) See the Pyramids of Egypt
√   4) Travel from Kathmandu to Timbuktu
√   5) Taj Mahal
√   6) Angkor
√   7) Travel through Burma
     8) Buy a Chinese Junk and live on it
     9) Become a pirate (well, you know, not the Somalia type, but it
         goes along with the Chinese Junk)
     10) Free a slave …had the opportunity but missed the chance,
           damn.
√   11) Petra
√   12) Pretend I’m Indiana Jones in some far off land exploring bone
           ridden caves and dodging deadly animals and the whole
           Indiana Jones thing – YES!!!. Caves, check, human bones,
           check, deadly animals
(scorpions, barking dogs, possibility of
           poisonous snakes – I’ll take it), check, little passageways

           through dangerous (possibly) villages in a foreign land,
          
check.   Sweet…
     13) Do the Karakoram Highway …all the way.
           …along with the NWFP.
√   14) The Himalayas
√   15) The Himalayas again
     16) Bhutan …looks awesome, gonna have to bite the bullet and
           just go.
     17) The Trans-Himalaya Trail in Nepal …the whole thing in one
           shot. None of this section crap. I see a lot of people saying it
           can’t be done and you would have to run it, blah, blah, blah.
           Thats BS. I could do it easily, just need the time and the
           proper paperwork. No doubt about it. It’ll take months, I know,
           so what.
√   18) The Nile …did it …all the way …three months. Awesome trip.
√   19) The Sahara
√   20) The Sahara again
     21) The Sahara one more time (at least)
√   22) The Niger to Timbuktu
     23) The Niger even further – from Mopti to Gao, than into Niger to
           Niamey
     24) Agadez, The Aïr Mountains and Woodabe
     25) The Amazon River
     26) The Congo and DRC from Kinshasa to Kinsangani …now
           there’s a trip.
     27) The Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia
     28) Be able to walk out of my house with everything I own in my
           Kelty 2650 pack …and not look back, worry, or have to go
           back for anything else. In other word – Nomad. I gotta tell ya,
           I’m really close to this, and possibly there. I have a lot of
           books that I’d be like, damn, and a lot of pictures, sentimental
           crap and stuff like that, but I think I could almost do this. Have
           to sell the car but no big deal…
     29) The Kalahari …although no big deal if I don’t see it, but why
           not, always wanted to be able to say I was there
     30) Southern Africa ex-South Africa …this would be easy if I would
           just stop going to the Sahara
     31) Stop smoking …my God, this is actually #1 on the list and an
           ongoing process
√   32) Morocco, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Cambodia, Thailand, China,
           Japan, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt,
Ethiopia, Sudan,
           Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali,
           Senegal, India, Nepal,
Vietnam, Myanmar, Afghanistan,
           New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Saigon,
           Hanoi,
Bangkok, Yangon, Sana’a, Casablanca, Marrakech,
           Timbuktu, Kathmandu, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur,J
aisalmer, Jodhpur,
           Udaipur, Kabul, Kuala Lumpur, London, Madrid, Venice, Cairo,
           Khartoum,
Omdurman, Addis Ababa, Lagos, Douala, Bamako,
           Dakar, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dialasso, Lome,
Cotonou,
           Damascus, Amman, Istanbul, Muscat, Abu Dhabi, Dubai 
           
…many having no desire to go back at all. Having survived all
           of them once is a feat in itself.
√   33) Try to understand why the more money people have the more
           they worry and complain about money.
 
           …think I got this one, as much as I will ever understand, so
           I’m checkin it off.
√   34) Never make a bucket list again …I think I got this one down
     35) Be Happy

Hmmm, kind of like my list. Maybe not such a bad thing after all.

     36) Somalia
     37) Go back to Bangkok …unless I live there, this will always
           remain on my list. The greatest city in the world. I’ve been
           there 5 or 6 times and always try to make it back if I’m in the
           area.
     38) Live in a foreign, non-western, country for at least a year
     39) The South Pacific. Tahiti, Rangiroa, Bora Bora, Samoa,
           Kiribati, Fiji …too many to name.

    
    
     Another thing with the Bucket List, thinking about an older post. Sometimes you don’t know you want to see or do something …until you actually see or do it. Most of the things I’ve done or seen have been spur of the moment types. The Bucket List becomes oxy-moronic in this sense, especially in regards to travel and adventure. Travel and adventure for me is spontaneous, spur of the moment and definitely not planned. Putting together a list is planning. Blah. I would never put “Swim with Hippos” on my list, but heck, one of the most adventurous, exciting, as well as stupid things I’ve ever done. Wouldn’t take that back for anything. Watching slaves be marched in, bought and sold …Bucket List moment, absolutely not, but my God I’m glad I saw that and am aware of it now. Staring down pirates, holding an empty AK …bucket list, no. Awesome, gotta say, yes. Child soldiers. Glad I met them and talked to them. Wish it wasn’t so, but it is. Bucket List. Heck no.

…so maybe:

√     40) Enjoy the ride and realize I can’t list what I don’t know is out
             there. …check that one.

     So, a little tougher to make than I thought, and kind of enjoyable actually. Definitely an interesting exercise in wants and goals too. … and if anyone wants to invest, these Junk Boats are expensive – send me an email. :)

A few last minute additions:

     41) Papua New Guinea
     42) Walk the Gobi

Mandalay Palace Palms

Travels through Myanmar VII – Mandalay

…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress

Mandalay, Hmmm, what to say about Mandalay…

     A city that many travellers dream of visiting. A name that brings up thoughts of the exotic. Palm trees swaying in the breeze, bamboo stands lining the roads, Kipling, Buddhism. Sitting on the veranda, a slight breeze whispering through the air, sipping …some kind of exotic juice or drink (my preference would be Mandalay Beer)… George Orwell, elephants wandering around the streets, red robed monks wandering through the golden spired stupas throughout the city.

     My first impression to those thoughts would be Whhhhaaatttt? Reality: Hotter than …well, it’s hot, and humid. Dust everywhere, thrown up by the chaotic traffic of old trucks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and any other type of vehicle made before 1980. The sidewalks choked with those vehicles, used as parking. The air thick with smog and pollution. Horns blaring. Exhaust fumes being inhaled at every twist and turn. Central Mandalay …not a tree in sight. It’s all concrete and pavement. Not a very impressive first impression to say the least. The Mandalay in Vegas – don’t know where they got that idea from, but it certainly wasn’t from the real Mandalay, that’s for sure …thank god.

     From there, yes, it did get better, at least a bit. Mandalay is more of a city that needs to be delved into, absorbed and explored to really appreciate. A small corner restaurant that doesn’t look too promising turns out to be one of the best, as well as cheapest meals of the trip. The morning markets, lively and fun, with tanaka covered faces smiling at you from every angle. A pagoda here, a pagoda there. As you wander the city, you start to notice the smaller things, the underlying thought that this is the “most exotic” city in the world. It’s not the city itself, it’s the people, the location, the mentality and history. Sitting on the Irrawaddy River, overlooked by stupa covered hills, parts of the city seemingly overrun by red robed monks, ancient teak monasteries filled with even older relics and furniture. A smile here, a smile there. An ice-cold soda, or beer, served by a ten-year old smiling waiter. A dinner prepared, cooked and served by a ninety year old woman, always smiling.

     Yes, it did get better. Maybe not the exotic city of legends, but an exotic and interesting city none the less. Get out of the “city center”, and the roads turn to dirt, the kitchens are all relocated outside, the rush hour traffic turns from diesel fumes and noise to bicycles and sandals, and things only get better.

     As for sights to see, Mandalay has way too many to list here. Head up to Mandalay Hill. Take a winding stroll up the stupa and pagoda studded hill to take in the views over the city. Stroll around Mandalay Palace in the morning …six miles around (gulp) … the “tourist” entrance is the eastern entrance, trying to get into any other will only get you an appointment and conversation with one or more AK wielding guards. I actually recommend this by the way. I had some great conversations playing stupid. Nothing to stupid, but just a walk up to the group of military, asking the ubiquitous question “Go In Here?’. It always started with a grinning military man in full uniform politely saying no as he waved his AK around. A question here, a question there, and more times than not I would end up talking about where I was from, what I thought about Myanmar, drinking tea, exchanging laughs. Gotta go …another mile and a half to the next entrance.

     Break…the REAL crab cake up above there. Head to Amarapura and U Bein Bridge for those…Back to Mandalay Palace…If you do go into Mandalay Palace, realize a few things. The palace grounds encompass a huge area but your only allowed on the road into the very center where the actual palace is located. Guards line the road from the entrance to the palace. You would think they are testing nuclear weapons in there. The palace itself, it’s a rebuilt shell of its original self. A shame really. It gets worst. The palace was rebuilt by forced labor in the late nineties… I know, you’re in Mandalay. A once in a lifetime opportunity here. That is one reason I don’t say “don’t do it”. If you go in, just be aware, and don’t have too high expectations. It’s rebuilt, yes, it may not be right, I know, but hey, the original palace ruled this area of the world for hundreds of years and was the center of Indochina for a period, so your walking through history and the center of an empire, no matter what the present government has mutated it into. If you do go in, don’t miss climbing the “Tower” at the southern end of the compound, where you can look over Mandalay to the mountains beyond and enjoy the cool breeze up above it all.

     Done with the Palace and hills. Looking for a little comedy – The Moustache Brothers are world-renowned. Dinner on the sidewalk for people watching – the Chapati Stand on 82nd and 27th street …maybe people watching at its finest, and cheap too! A large and clean pool in a quiet lush garden setting in the city centre, the Mandalay City Hotel. Don’t miss the Jade Market. I am serious about this one. Situated in the south-western section of the city, right next to the Monk District, this market is crazy. Every and any form of jade can be seen or bought here. From raw rock jade to intricately carved masterpieces, I have never, ever seen anything like this market. This is almost its own city inside the city. Not because of its size, but just how it is. Intertwined with pool “halls”, bars, restaurants and everything else, jade dealers can actually spend a lifetime here living, trading and hawking. Some shady characters here. It can be intimidating. Child labor running rampant. You wanna check your ego and attitude at the “door” (chain link fence is more like it). This place is serious, with serious dealers dealing with serious money sporting serious protection and serious firepower. Some shady, heck, all out rough-looking characters can be found in the middle of the market here. Again though, hey, everyone is nice enough. Smiling and accommodating. The outskirts of the market mainly family type businesses, with children running around and a great market atmosphere. Just like any other travel destination, know where you are. No BS here. Right around the corner …streets full of monks. Thousands. Red robes everywhere. Monasteries. Ancient teak buildings. Houses of wicker. Teak bridges crossing meandering streams. An all around great and interesting part of Mandalay. This is where things can get “caught in time”. Walk into an 800 year old monastery and right into an open air type room filled with 1000 year old relics. Nothing behind glass or anything like that. Open to the elements. Still in use …built to last. Gotta love it.

     Tired of Mandalay. Head out. Inwa, Sagaing, Amarapura, Mingun. All capitals of centuries past within a few kilometers of Mandalay. The longest Teak bridge in the world, U-Bein Bridge, Amapurma. 500 temples overlooking the Irrawaddy, Sagaing. An earthquake cracked, photogenically endowed, Paya, Mingon. An ancient city that ruled the Burmese Kingdom for four hundred years, accessible by horse cart …Inwa. It seems there is no end to the history, as well as fascinating sites around Mandalay. It’s an area that needs to be explored, still. Thats it. At first sight, a dust bowl of crap. Delve a bit deeper, and it’s a city of legends, imagination and fascination. But you have to leave sometime, and all too often, as was my case, too soon…

…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates

Halong Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam.

     Think …old Chinese junks, floating through a maze of over 3000 limestone islets set in turquoise blue waters, tropical birds flying all around, villages floating on the waters here and there. Cave systems to spark the interest of the land lubbers. Tales of dragons spitting jade and jewels, protectors against the northern invaders, to spark the imagination. Halong Bay, I never knew it even existed until I actually saw it. Impressive. If you’re in Vietnam, don’t miss the chance to see it. Even bad pictures bring back good memories from here.

September 18, 2010

Shy

Shy

Mut, Dakhla Oasis, Egypt.

Once I received a comment on this photo that said:

I hope everyone can see every child in the world in this photo, just beautiful.
A lovely fleeting moment.”

…maybe the best comment that I could possibly hear. My intention for almost any portrait type photo I take is the “instant” connection between the subject and viewer of that photo. …to have the viewer feel some kind of emotional contact with the picture, without me having to say anything. It usually, well almost never, doesn’t happen, but I keep trying. I keep trying because I believe that every child is worth it. If I can turn one person’s opinion around through my photos, than its worth it. People are people. Children are children. No matter what the country, the religion, the monetary situation, the political situation. Fundamentally, inside, everyone is the same. I could definitely do better with the post processing on this photo. I have learned quite a bit since this was taken. Technically, photographically speaking, the photo blows. The color is off. Could probably sharpen it a bit more. Maybe a bit of contrast, better color, etc, etc.

     …but why? It’s the moment that counts, and I love this moment. It reminds me instantly of the children of Mut. This girl. This day. She was so shy. I showed her a photo of herself on my LCD. She looked away, she looked back, she closed her eyes, she laughed. I raised my camera for another shot. She knew what was coming, she didn’t know what to do, she wanted to hide, but she wanted to see her picture again. Click. She ran to me to see her face. She laughed again. This is the memory and I’m glad to have it and show it. A fleeting moment where I can see every child in the world in her face. I don’t want to change a thing about it. Isn’t that what photography is all about?

                           December 2, 2007