Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon's famed -- and gigantic -- Shwedagon pagoda.  Finally putting up a picture, hoping you can see the sublime of the mathematical in its sheer size and grandeur. 

 

Photo cred: jax

Photo cred: jax

But I can't help liking the smaller shrines better, like this little one. 

And best of all I like the bells, like these three (including one detail).

Every visitor who comes to Yangon goes to see Shwedagon, as well they should.  But I hope they step away from the gold and glitz and commune a bit with all the care and love that went into even the tiniest details of this majestic place. I think Myanmar likes to emphasize the spiritual impact of the big, but I keep being moved by the little -- here, there, often, always. 

Oops, I ate them again...

These were fried all the way through, so they lacked the exploding coconut-cream innards that the ones in Cambodia had. (Though to be completely frank, I thought the ones in Cambodia were much better; these were more like gritty, oily plantain chips.) As a sustainable protein source, however, they should definitely be cultivated. As a taste, well, I think the cultivation should be rather more optional...

Wait, am I really understanding what people are saying?

No, not well and certainly not always, but this week I started having conversations of substance that didn't follow the canned scripts of my textbooks.  

And then this happened:

Please eat the liquid on the far right, I entreat you.

Please eat the liquid on the far right, I entreat you.

Yes, that is a dhosa, but it is a very special dhosa; it's a dhosa I only found out about because I ended up talking at length — in Burmese — with a man about how good the Muslim food here is.  He asked me if I had had this and that (I had), I successfully referred to varieties of tamarind sauces and potato curries, and when we spoke of dhosas, he said there was a special one that came with fish-curry liquid that I could go get on 53rd street.  

Well. 

53rd street is rather dingy and untrafficked, so you can imagine the surprise of the vendor when I strolled up and asked for his specialty. His smile was incredible. More incredible, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, was the fish curry liquid itself, especially with his gorgeous dhosa and the egg fried into it. Wow. 

Maybe I would have stumbled upon this place had I not spoken Burmese, and maybe I would have seen someone eating the trademark sauce and ordered it, but the fact that it came to me like a reward for all the hours of study made me almost cry. 

And, as long we’re discussing Burmese Muslim food, here’s a snap of the young women who make my favorite chapatis and tamarind sauces. 

And finally, how could I not share another of Chi Mya's (also Muslim) masterpieces: curried kidneys, dhal, okra, hot chili paste, cucumbers and two mystery vegetables (one a very bitter but delicious leaf, the other almost a cactus). I finally broached the topic of him teaching me, saying that next year I would speak well and he would have to show me how to make his food. He said he would. The master plan is coming together...

One day I will know how to cook this, and you will all be invited. 

One day I will know how to cook this, and you will all be invited. 

Yangon, Round 2

I'm back....

Schwedagon pagoda (left) and Kandawgyi Palace Hotel (right) from a rooftop hotel bar

Schwedagon pagoda (left) and Kandawgyi Palace Hotel (right) from a rooftop hotel bar

The child in light blue has tanaka intricately painted on his face.

The child in light blue has tanaka intricately painted on his face.

Waiting for the train.  They're not exactly the Japanese hi-speeds, so you have plenty of time to gather and vacate.

Waiting for the train.  They're not exactly the Japanese hi-speeds, so you have plenty of time to gather and vacate.

The famous Shan noodle. I was disappointed but later blown away by Shan ma la hin and myo mi shi. Pics tk if the light is ever good. 

The famous Shan noodle. I was disappointed but later blown away by Shan ma la hin and myo mi shi. Pics tk if the light is ever good. 

My Everest. If I can succeed in reading this, it will feel like finishing Proust in French. 

My Everest. If I can succeed in reading this, it will feel like finishing Proust in French. 

Quiet Yangon

The temple top is almost complete...

The temple top is almost complete...

Building a rooftop -- unprotected

Building a rooftop -- unprotected

Dousing outpost from Thingyan. These kids got me a bunch of times.

Dousing outpost from Thingyan. These kids got me a bunch of times.

Giant party bus with shrieking sound-system...

Giant party bus with shrieking sound-system...

Mini party-bus with yet more shrieky sound-system

Mini party-bus with yet more shrieky sound-system

Cat bowls

Cat bowls

A building under construction, shrouded and looking like a Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture

A building under construction, shrouded and looking like a Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture

View from my hotel window

View from my hotel window

The abandoned minister's building, finally under reconstruction

The abandoned minister's building, finally under reconstruction

Large government building

Large government building

Man crossing street

Man crossing street

Happy Burmese New year

Scene like the one I was in at this year's Thingyan, the Burmese water festival during the four days leading up to New Year.  (credit:http://myanmar-cefa.or.jp/myanmar_tourism_tokyo/img/myanmar/zaw_zaw_tun_108a1_40_myanmar_new_year_festival.jpg)

Scene like the one I was in at this year's Thingyan, the Burmese water festival during the four days leading up to New Year.  (credit:http://myanmar-cefa.or.jp/myanmar_tourism_tokyo/img/myanmar/zaw_zaw_tun_108a1_40_myanmar_new_year_festival.jpg)

Happy Myanmar new year!

My 2015 in situ resolutions:

  • dance under firehoses whenever possible
  • risk GI distress fearlessly (and at least thrice daily)
  • learn the rest of the alphabet by next week — I’m close!
  • spend at least a month in a Buddhist monastery
  • schedule as many appointments for “nya nei nga na yi” as possible — and say it with pride
  • offer my soul to learn how to make Chi Mya’s curries
  • help people understand this stunningly contradictory — as perplexing as inspiring — country
  • and maybe drink a little more $1.85/bottle Burmese whiskey...

And, if you didn't see my post on Facebook, I spent about 4 hours in a throng just like the one above, in the heart of the swarm, dancing like a maniac, all the while pummeled by firehoses from above. I was kissed by six different burmese guys -- all complete strangers -- handed local whiskey in water bottles, danced with by every child and every grandmother, and so drenched that it killed my iPhone, even though I had it in a ziploc bag. Totally worth it!

Now, if you avoid the stages with the giant dance parties, that doesn't mean you're out of the soup. For four days, literally from morning till sunset all around the city, kids everywhere spray everyone with hoses -- some with serious nozzlage, occasionally taking out whole busloads of people -- and tossing buckets of ice water on anyone who comes close enough. 

And i figured out quickly that there's no better target for them than a white guy on a bicycle. So I'd zoom in, ringing my bell wildly, take the bucket of frigidity to the face and then say, "Muh so bu!" (i'm not wet!) then circle back so they could get me again. 

Obviously I love this country, so by now you probably think I'm completely biased, but that really was one hell of a party.

Why the hotel staff is convinced that I'm a lunatic

I started this on Facebook, but here’s a more thorough list of why the hotel staff thinks I’m crazy:

  • Virtually everyone who visits here only stays a night, as they leave for Bagan or Mandalay the next day — or just arrived from there and are flying home. I’ve been here a month.
  • I carry a dictionary with me everywhere like it was my colostomy bag or some other vital health necessity to have on my person. 
  • Every morning they see me tracing out Burmese letters and pronouncing them to myself like I was in an imaginary preschool, trying to copy answers from Snuffalupagus’ homework. 
  • By the time I’ve finished my chili-laden breakfast, my orthography practice, and my 6-12 tiny cups of tea, I have a bandeau of sweat fully seeped through both my undershirt and outershirt from navel to clavicle. (Do boiled beverages in 100-degree heat tend to have that effect…?)
  • I willfully stay in the 2nd-worst room in the hotel — the one right by the check-in desk — though I did upgrade from the orchid nursery I started in. Granted I tend to be roused (with the staff) every time a new guest arrives at 3 a.m., but at least I no longer wake to sodden clothing. 
  • I come back from the gym most afternoons so drenched from head to toe I might has well have swam home. (I think my gym should advertise Bikram Weightlifting!) Mercifully my room has a drying rack. 
  • I always have prodigious quantities of tea salad in my room — thanks to Zaw’s dad’s generosity — and the dense, mulchy odor of the fermented tea copulates with the dense, mulchy odor of my gym-clothing to create a jungle miasma probably akin to the breath of a hyena or some other carrion-eating, hot-mouthed mammal.
  • I eschew the toast, butter, and jam they offer at breakfast and instead take the local “pe pyo” (boiled baby chickpeas, served with fried rice and an egg) and, as mentioned, cover it with chilis.  (And, note, most Burmese are physically terrified of hot peppers. it’s very fun to try to get them to eat them…)  I’ve seen other foreigners get served the pe pyo, but they never seem to touch it.
  • When the staff does brave the effluvium of my room, they find an empty bottle of local whiskey in my trash every week or so, but no evidence of ice or mixers. (And another thing the Burmese are afraid of is drinking whiskey neat. Every time I do that, I get little head-cocking gestures from the other bar patrons that seem to mean, “Damn, dude.”)
  • I’ve spurned backpacks and instead gone the local route, toting a yellow plastic bag fashioned out of the plastic covering of a crate that once held 20 kilos of Me-O brand cat food. In the same way that black plastic trashbags are often called “Irish luggage,” I think these hand-sewn guys are Burmese working-class Louis Vuittons. 
  • They often run into me at the street food vendors they frequent, my knees up by my ears as I crouch in an undersized chair, sweat dripping from my forearms onto my shorts’ hems, darkening them visibly.
  • Some days I speak to them in accurate Burmese and other days I utterly botch everything. I’ve known them since I started studying, so it’s a little like visiting your family and being thrown back into some atavistic version of yourself you forgot even existed. (ex: When I’m around my family, my handyman skills go out the window, while when I’m alone, I’m passably adroit..). Suffice it to say that the hotel guys make me nervous.
  • All the reasons all of you already know I’m crazy, which I think I wear pretty plainly on my sweat-soaked sleeves.

If only words could be as color is...

My eye slakes -- the melancholy rainbows of fading, brightness a-blitz against the grime, a thousand iterations coaxing white to green, as if the universe of color was calipered between the two shirts hanging from this balcony.    

At other times, color takes the form of parable...

monasteryTopPainted.jpg

Or a caco-symphony... (undoctored iPhone snaps from the top of the Mingala market) 

Here a kun: ya (paan) stand -- to test the amplitude of your rods and cones...

A kun:-ya stand for betel-chewers (similar to paan in India)

A kun:-ya stand for betel-chewers (similar to paan in India)

The white urn contains the lime they slake on each leaf prior to putting in the betel, tobacco, and all else

The white urn contains the lime they slake on each leaf prior to putting in the betel, tobacco, and all else

I love it, though you do have to discharge giant gobs of brick-colored sputum as you chew... 

I love it, though you do have to discharge giant gobs of brick-colored sputum as you chew... 

The cans themselves are amazing

The cans themselves are amazing

Or here, where incense has its distinctive redolence -- only this time visually...

And have I mentioned the food? The genius of the hin (curry): my beloved Chi Mya's stand...

Chi Mya's stand (I got his name wrong in the earlier post; that was his daughter!)

Chi Mya's stand (I got his name wrong in the earlier post; that was his daughter!)

A chicken-feet salad

A chicken-feet salad

Almost a Burmese spaghetti, of all things...

Almost a Burmese spaghetti, of all things...

And, of course, the brooms...

Luh-hpeq' thoq': Burmese tea salad as a cultural conduit

The wonder that is fermented green tea leaves plus tons of crunchies and savories, all mixed together.

The wonder that is fermented green tea leaves plus tons of crunchies and savories, all mixed together.

 

Oh my beloved tea salad,
for which I pen this poetaster’s paean,
had I ne’er tasted your myriad charms,
this trip might’ve proved European…

Five shockingly short years ago, at the tail end of a 6-week stint in Southeast Asia, I happened to touch down in Yangon, erstwhile Rangoon, then capital of Myanmar, erstwhile Burma.  I hadn’t had time to do much research, and I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that in 1988 there had been an election, but then the military had stepped in and said nah and took over themselves. I knew they changed the name of the country and capital (and ultimately built a new city in the jungle and moved the seat of power there).  I knew their borders had been closed to tourists until soon before, that most of the country was strictly off-limits (and still is), that you were required to exchange a certain amount of money per day, and that most of that money went to the military, thus putting Myanmar on most people’s Scheiss list.     

But there I was — and wow how it proved to be awesome. As I recount earlier on this blog (thanks, Squarespace for such easy navigation...), I happened to meet a Burmese guy who ran a English-language school, volunteered to speak to his students — mostly monks — and found the people (and later the food) utterly irresistible. i resolved that the next time I could take a trip, I’d come back and spend significant time. 

In my travels I had already found that the easiest way to get local people to trust you was to sit down and eat street food (or drink homemade liquor with them or smoke really skanky tobacco…), but nowhere did my approach have more impact than here, and nowhere did learning 20 words of the language create more happiness. 

And the best was “luh-peh tho’” (tea salad). I had had it in NY — and loved it — and one of the monks told me how to say the name, so I would stop every time I saw it on the street, then sit in a kindergarten-sized plastic chair and wolf it down (while drinking 6-12 cups of hot tea in the 90-degree heat). 

Those were the most precious hours; the interactions with the vendors, their families, the passersby, the other patrons were all so joyful and comedic. There was still very little tourism at that point, so I was quite an oddity anyway, but plunked down on the sidewalk, smiling, saying “luh-peh tho’” and giving the thumbs up as people walked by me, I might as well have been a giant clown juggling tilapia. But I also believe (and of course I might be imagining) that the people felt that I was showing marked appreciation of their country — an appreciation they weren’t getting from pretty much anywhere in the world at that time. I’ve since been told how cut off Burmese people felt from the rest of the world, how isolated. So eating a uniquely Burmese dish in full view was probably as good a thing as a non-speaker could possibly do.

And so I’m back, and I eat luh-peh tho’ almost every day.  Now I know how to pronounce it properly, how to say “I’m American, but, yes, I love Burmese food and people. Tea salad is my favorite! I was here five years ago and wanted to come back, and I’m so happy now that I’m here,” and it clearly has an impact. But as delightful as it is now, it still pales a little compared to how it was then. 

At that point, I think it was critical. And somehow in my standard bumbling fashion, I had lucked into the easiest and most delicious way to say “I adore you” to a people that hadn’t been hearing that anywhere near enough. 

It's even better when you eat a mini garlic clove and chile with every bite!

It's even better when you eat a mini garlic clove and chile with every bite!

Across the big bridge, Yangon

I took a long walk today over a huge bridge along what felt like a highway. But it was worth it; the views were incredible, and then I had a wonderful lunch experience, doted over by the girl in the picture below and her mom (who kept giving me more food until I literally said I was in pain). I will go back with my video camera, but for now, here's the best I could do with my iPhone4...