Saturday, February 22, 2014

My, Oh My, Myanmar: 10 Days in Burma

Mandalay, Myanmar

One of the most unexpected and surprising countries on this round-the-world adventure has been Myanmar, situated right where India and China meet. A friend from my writing group in Brooklyn, who moved to Yangon about a year and half ago, threw out an invitation to come stay with her and her family. Although our visit in this country was only ten days, every day was a rewarding experience and we both feel it is the one country we have been to that doesn't yet feel like it has been globalized. The people were warm and the culture eager to share with foreigners as much as it was accessible. Likewise, travelers here are also more friendly and somewhat more banded together because you have to be.
Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Myanmar
We flew from Saigon to Yangon, where we spent a few days being totally pampered by the sheer comfortability of my friend's home complete with a huge guest bedroom, a soft mattress with extra fluffy pillows, a hot shower with good water pressure, a WASHING MACHINE!!!, home cooked meals and a three year old that melted you the second you laid eyes on him. Mike and I thoroughly enjoyed our walk through Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and saw all of the colonial-era buildings left in different states of disrepair, a photographic dream. We had drinks at the Strand Hotel where authors like George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling once toasted glasses and also enjoyed some Western food at the new Union Bar and Grill, an example of the lightning speed development happening in Myanmar. We strolled around the Shwedagon Paya at dusk, watching the families come to worship and to enjoy the ambience. We also enjoyed a fabulous photography exhibit at the Institut Francais de Birmanie where one photographer carefully captured the aftermath of the violent conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims that light the the country on fire every few months. Filled in by dinner conversations with my friend and he husband, we quickly learned the state of the union in Myanmar which set the scene wonderfully for us before we headed to Mandalay for the Irrawaddy Literary Festival where we spent a day immersing ourselves in sessions with authors, BBC journalists, artists and former political prisoner, Daw Aung Saw Suu Kyi. We also did some sightseeing just before and walked through the "World's Largest Book," but the literary festival was one of the best days on this trip for me.
Yangon, Myanmar
From Mandalay we took a bus to Bagan, even though we have hit out limit with bus travel. (The overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay included a man with whooping cough seated right behind me.) The bus ride to Bagan did not disappoint in the same way that all bus travel captures a glimpse of the culture. When the seats were all filled. The bus driver's assistant pulled out tiny plastic stools that he placeed in the aisle for people to sit on and no matter how many people were packed into the bus, the bus always stopped to pick up locals waving them down from the side of the road. I could have done without the young man vomiting out the window behind me, but I certainly could feel for him and in a way someone getting sick on a bus humbles me instantly. It could just as easily be me with my head out the window.
Bagan, Myanmar
In Bagan we stayed in the Backpackers district in Nyuang U and Mike and I popped into several guesthouses and even left one we agreed to stay at before finding a room. We agreed to a room for $20 a night, but after five minutes in the room under punishing florescent lights, all of the "icks" of the room became too much to bear and by this point our threshold for what is and what is not acceptable is pretty flexible. But, this room was by far one of the worst rooms we had seen complete with stained (possibly dirty) sheets, a leaky, moldy, rusty bathroom, a few mosquitos and stifling, humid air. We turned our key back in, bit the bullet and stayed at a guesthouse that was a little above our budget but every dollar worth it. The next day we rented bikes and tooled around Old Bagan checking out Buddhist temples that had been standing since the 12th century. They reminded me of the cave churches and cave monasteries in Cappadocia, Turkey, also built the same century and how these two worlds so out of touch with each other, yet still somehow perhaps consciously connected, constructed these beautiful religious temples to their different gods at the same time and how amazingly they have all stood the test of time. The idea of "globalization" is perhaps just a clever word that compartmentalizes what has always been happening, which is that we aren't that different from each other after all.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Pagodas at Inthein, Inle Lake, Myanmar
After Bagan, we treated ourselves to a cheap 30-minute flight to Inle Lake, by far one of the most spectacular experiences of the trip. We took a boat ride for an entire day going in and around Inle Lake. To see a culture so completely enmeshed with their eco system had a grace and a beauty I can't quite explain. The fisherman who row their boats with one leg wrapped around an oar so their hands can spear fish and wrangle the net looked more like a water ballet than fishing. We watched a girl break open a lotus plant and draw threads which we then saw spun by a middle aged woman which is then handed over to the elderly women to weave into scarves. Three young blacksmiths hammered away at a molten hot machete while an older man held the blade steady with thongs, a blade which then is used to swiftly crack open even the most stubborn of coconuts. Of course, these were "tourist" stops along the boat ride, but they still had an authentic feel perhaps by the hands off approach of the families we visited. There was never a pressure to buy anything. And while Inle Lake is a tourist destination, the tourism feels to be in the hands of the people and the lake is so enormous that you aren't bumping elbows with other tourists to try and see "real Myanmar." It simply just is.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
We dipped into a small village, Inthein, where we hiked up to some Pagoda ruins and then the Forest of Pagodas, where temples had been overgrown by Banyan trees and the landscape had reclaimed what was once rightfully theirs. Nature always wins.
In ten years, Myanmar will be completely different, I imagine. I feel so grateful to have experienced this country right now in this moment, on the crux of explosive development and yet still so open and welcoming to the curious traveler.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Necessary Noise: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at Irrawaddy Literary Festival 2014
A year ago, my friend living in Yangon posted a link to the Irrawaddy Literary Festival on her Facebook page. Even though it was taking place in Myanmar, a country I knew almost nothing about and I was sure to not attend, I opened up the link and read all about this festival I would not be able to go to. Cut to, January 2014, after I have booked my ticked to Myanmar and my friend emails the link for the same festival, happening in Mandalay, with a note: "This should be one of your stops."

"Human Trafficking" - Duncan Jepson, Caroline Moorehead, Wendy Law-Yone & Nu Nu Kyi
I was shocked that something I was so curious about and had completely forgotten about had reappeared in front of me with the actual possibility that this year I could attend! And on February 15th, 2014, we ran wild at this literary festival where we listened to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speak (Twice! No less!) and listened to renowned authors talks about the qualities of heroes and villains, a Cambridge professor talk about where English as a world language should be welcomed or deplored, listened to a BBC journalist debate with an audience member about the lasting truth or perhaps fraud of Marcel Duchamp and his brilliant or clever creation of conceptual art. We listened to authors and a human rights activist talk about the ugly truth of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. I listened to myself talk with panelists, including an English Pakistani author, (Qaisra Shahraz) about my experiences with social media and writing including the struggle to find balance between its necessity and the overwhelming distraction in can become. It was a day that lit my creative soul on fire.

But perhaps the only reason I was supposed to be there in Mandalay, Myanmar on February 15th, 2014 was to hear author (a Chinese born writer whose work is banned in China), Jung Chang, who grew up in communist China tell an auditorium packed full of Myanmar citizens still just wading in the water of a recently opened society that when she was a girl she wanted to be a wrier. "When I was a child," she said, "I wanted to be a writer, but I couldn't even say to myself I wanted to be a writer." She could not even dream it. She recalled police coming to her home when she was sixteen and taking a story she had written and shoving pages down a toilet for fear of being caught. The question was raised if writers who grew up in totalitarian states have a certain responsibility and I couldn't help but wonder about my responsibility as a writer who has only ever known a free and democratic existence. Sometimes it takes a long journey to hear what we already know. This same author added that her favorite literary hero was the boy in Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes -that all it takes to be a hero is to stand up and state what is right before us.

"Where China Meets India" Session with Thant Myint U and Louis de Bernieres
In her conversation with Dame Joan Bakewell, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and former political prisoner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi talked about democracy and duty. "Rights entail responsibilities," she noted. When asked if she felt her life had a sense of destiny to follow in her father's footsteps, (He was assassinated when she was two years old.) she said it was never destiny but more duty, and not a moral duty but a personal duty. "A sense of duty means you broaden the world around you," she said. In her later discussion on literary heroes and villains, she added that Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was her favorite literary character. She admitted she must be a rebel at heart. When asked about the disillusionment some westerners have regarding their democratic states she laughed, commenting that, "some of the disillusionment is on the surface...but those same people would be very put to defend those rights." And then she said something that made me feel hope about my disillusionment with my own country's faults. She said, "Societies deeply entrenched in democratic values don't go backwards." She added that people tire from adventuristic thinking and so may swing more conservative at times, but that: "It's a gentle swing within a democratic society." But she also warned that if you don't practice your democratic responsibilities, you will find that you will lose your democratic rights.

She danced around the Buddhism and Muslim conflict scorching villages along the country's borders, especially in Rakhine State, but when asked about what she wants for her country, she said, "What I want are people who understand if they want to be a part of a peaceful, prosperous country, they have to be a part of the struggle." Simply put: struggle as solution. Then what is involved in the struggle? When asked about what characterizes an enemy of democracy, she first defined democracy as "a respect for human beings and human rights." When Dame Bakewell suggested the notion that "wealth disparity is an enemy of democracy," a thought that never occurred to me before, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi agreed. To recognize the wealth disparity in the United States as something dangerous, something beyond the republican/democrat discourse, but something inherently toxic and threatening to the principles of the country made it more urgent than I have understood it.

For the first time in maybe ever, I thought of my writing, this writing, as neither successful or unsuccessful, good or bad. I saw it as a small duty, and a personal one. There is a reason I feel compelled to string together a bunch of nouns and adjectives and verbs and because of that I have to keep writing, even if I never make a cent from it, and simply because I can. It's not about who is listening, but rather am I talking? Am I writing as loud as possible? In the words of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, "A certain amount of noise in one's life is necessary.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Taste of War: Vietnam and Monsanto & Dow Chemical


War Remnants Museum, Saigon, Vietnam

It wasn't the pictures of American soldiers engaging in waterboarding, or holding up pieces of blown up Vietnamese corpses, or the skull of a Vietnamese soldier worn a top a helmet that got me. War is hell and can turn even the noblest of men into monsters. We all know this. In 2005, when Carmen and I traveled around the country shooting our documentary, Dear America, we saw first hand what the Iraq War had done to an otherwise upstanding family man. On his computer screen he had horrific images, some even saved as a screensaver, of his experiences in Iraq, like a reoccurring nightmare he didn't know how to escape. As a Vet, he was against the war, but war had made him both a victim and a killer, a tool and a sacrifice. We have seen the movies, we have read the stories. But what shook me to my bones was the museum's wing documenting the aftermath of Agent Orange. I had no idea that until this day, Agent Orange is still affecting the people whose villages were in the spraying zone. Grandchildren are being born with birth deformities. Children born with no legs or arms, siamese twins, blind, painful facial deformities that look similar to that of burn victims, cancers, mental retardation, or perhaps even more terrible are the children that are born healthy but at two years old begin suffering from the effects to the point of complete paralysis by adulthood.Yesterday we visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, a sobering experience documenting the atrocities of war. The Vietnam War is something that one cannot detach from while traveling through Vietnam. And while I think it is especially impossible as an American, I think any traveler would find it impossible. As home of the world's most unpopular war in modern times, the unspoken memories of what happened here are etched into its streets. And if the post war architecture is not a good enough reminder, the many beggars with physical deformities seem to suggest that things are still not quite right here.

Gas masks used when spraying Agent Orange

According to a statistic in the museum, three million people were still being affected through 2002, perhaps the last time the museum was updated. Dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical, is still in the soil, even in the water supply. US Soldiers returned home and died of mysterious illnesses or gave birth to babies with deformities. This I knew. But the three generations of Vietnamese families effected in rural villages was something new to me. Also new to me, learning that Monsanto, who controls 90% of the world's seed genetics, was the maker of Agent Orange, along with Dow Chemical who is currently seeking approval from the USDA for their genetically altered corn and soybeans whose seeds would be accompanied with herbicide, a weed killer, that contains some of the same chemicals used in Agent Orange. While some studies say the components used in this weed resistant herbicide are not harmful, are we actually buying that these two companies who didn't give a damn about human life in the 60s and 70s have the American people's interests at heart? Furthermore upsetting, was after the museum where I learned that the Vietnam government is actually in talks with Monsanto to bring some of their gentically altered seeds back into the country it has ravaged for almost fifty years to help boost crops.

The Aftermath of Agent Orange

I think of the history books that hopefully will exist long after we perish and I try to imagine what a young student would make of this crazy world, where corporations could wipe out entire peoples, and leave a disfiguring imprint on their children and grandchildren for fifty years only to be welcomed back into the country to plant their money in the still poisoned soil. I wonder about Americans who lost fathers and brothers to Agent Orange then feeding their grandchildren with crops laced with the same chemicals that took their ancestors. I wonder how it all will change. I wonder what it will take for my country to stop touting "American family values" as political fodder to win elections and actually start giving a damn about the lives of the same families that they so earnestly express they care about.

On the bottom floor of the museum was a poster that read "War is an invasion of life." I wonder when we will see that war does not quit once the bombs stop and the soldiers come home. It does not end with a victor and the defeated. War is creating a living legacy that invades far more and much longer than we humans can comprehend. War invades the psyche. It negotiates with the spirit, breaking down a people to the point where we find ourselves eating it on our plates.

Don't like the taste? Then get up from the table.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Year of the Horse

Kayaking through Halong Bay, Vietnam
It's been one of my favorite experiences on this journey to be traveling through Vietnam during their biggest holiday - Tet - the Lunar New Year. The travel has not been without challenges. We have had to take overnight buses to get to our destinations and we have had to skip Mui Ne completely because every hotel and hostel is booked over the 6 day holiday. But, it's been a special treat to walk along the streets of Hoi An and Nha Trang and soon Saigon with a mutual exchange of "Happy New Year!" It's been nice to celebrate New Year twice and I kind of dig this second chance of turning a new leaf after the hangover of January has passed.

In January, we visited four different countries with four very different vibes. We rang in the Western New Year in a tiny bar in Kathmandu listening to an awesome band cover The Doors and Kings of Leon. A week later we took a two week road trip that led us over the border of Nepal into Chinese Occupied Tibet. Traveling through Tibet in a Landcruiser with two Tibetans was one of the most eye-opening and soul stretching experiences of the trip. From Tibet, after a bit of a chaotic experience trying to leave the country, we flew into Thailand where we enjoyed walking through the protests of Bangkok only to learn after we left that the protests were inspired by the middle to upper class to throw out the recently democratically elected prime minister. After putting back on the pounds we lost in Tibet due to altitude sickness and a sinus infection, we left Bangkok with our bellies full of delicious Thai food and flew to Hanoi, Vietnam where we laughed ourselves silly with Tara. We kayaked through Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and all agreed that the water was shamefully polluted. We toured the heavily propaganda "Hanoi Hilton" or Hoa Lo Prison where John McCain was kept as a POW and read plaques that said how luck American prisoners were to have been prisoners of the Vietnamese who treated them extremely humanely. After a tearful goodbye with Tara and a few days of contemplating what the hell I am going to do once I return home, we met up with two other friends in Hoi An where all my worries were quieted.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
"Instead of looking at is anxiety, can you look at it as awe?" my friend, Hugh, asked me. It was one of those moments where words slay the fear dragon and my heart swells at the realization of how much I have come to care for and love this friend. Just the slightest shift in perspective can change everything. At least for today, I don't feel anxious about my future, I feel in awe of it and in awe at my life and this world and in awe of my desire to give back to it in some way, a way I believe will one day be revealed to me if I keep asking the question.

Berto & Hugh in Hoi An, Vietnam
Right now, we are sitting in a cafe in Nha Trang, taking it one hour at a time as we try to kill 8 hours before our overnight bus departs. In the morning, we hope to be waking up in Saigon and ready to catch the SuperBowl at an ex-pats bar at 6am. Perhaps even more exciting than the game is my friend, Danielle's hard work manifesting in a Superbowl commercial that I have to see! She is a publicist for the band Passenger whose song will be playing during a Budweiser commercial and she will probably kill me for even indicating she deserves some credit, but the girl is a rockstar at her job, not to mention one of my oldest friends to date. We have weathered many storms together from 12 - 32, even with an out of touch period through our twenties. We have survived the Valley, charged the Big Apple, and toured through Berlin and Prague together, as well. It will be fun to raise a glass to her during a SuperBowl commercial from halfway around the world.

Tet in Hoi An, Vietnam
Cua Dai Beach, Vietnam
 The other night, Mike and I were playing our usual game of "Top 5 Experiences on this trip - GO!" And while there are some experiences that just are above and beyond (The road trip through Tibet, paragliding in Nepal, the balloon ride in Cappadocia, Turkey, volunteering for three weeks in McLeod Ganj, India, cruising the Amalfi Coast, etc...) the best experiences have been with the friends we have made like the Canadian family we spent Christmas with and the friends we have met up with along the way - having the slowest served dinner high up above Berlin with Nicole and Chris (friendships originally forged through a small sandwich shop in Caherciveen , Ireland and walking the Brooklyn Bridge), cliff diving off the Turkish Coast with Jeff and Erin, ending up with an unwanted hot dog and a shitty glass of wine in Prague with Danielle and laughing at the let down of our last night in Prague, playing cards with Sandy and John in our riad in Fez, Morocco while taking turns having a horrific stomach bug but laughing our asses off, literally, making friends with two men from Bhutan in India and sharing a homecooked meal together, siting around a dinner table in Shimla with a family that for a few days became our own, talking life and passion in Hanoi with Tara, shedding fear and anxiety in Hoi An with Hugh and Berto, and we are not done yet...

So with this New Lunar Year, and with the Year of the Horse upon us, a year that is supposed to be energetic and enthusiastic and positive, I find myself steeped in gratitude and awe for everything that has been and will be, and a deep love for the people in my life and the people that one day will be.

Flowers for Tet, Hoi An, Vietnam