Step 1. Go to an east coast, private liberal arts school with a large body of international students.
Step 2. Befriend a nice guy from Nepal.
Step 3. Move to Thailand and plan to stalk said friend from Nepal “while in the same hemisphere.”
Step 4. Show up in Kathmandu with no plans.
Step 5. Get escorted ’round the city and the country with little to no effort exerted on your part because your hosts are so awesome.
As you can see, I have absolutely no practical advice for travelers to Nepal. Some girls in my hostel asked, and I had nothing. Nothing at all.
I can’t imagine what my Nepal experience would have been like without the intensely gracious hospitality of the Pande family. We were fed very well, with my friend Paulie refusing, flat-out refusing, all of my requests to pick up the check at shared dinners in restaurants. I was able to snatch a couple through pure wiliness, but it wasn’t easy. I am now carrying around a great deal of generosity debt that will have to be passed on to others.
Our short trip was packed to the brim with activities that exposed us to ancient Nepalese culture through temples both Buddhist and Hindu and behind-the-scenes Durbar Squares with well-curated museums. We also got a strong introduction to modern Nepalese life through late nights spent in cafés with friends and invitations to family parties. In fact, my biggest take away from our trip was that all Nepalese people are as awesome as Paulie. Everyone seemed to have a generous streak and a great sense of humor. Everyone likes to hang out, despite the 6-day work week.
For instance, normally when anyone asks about the tattoo on Andy’s hand, he will respond, “it’s from Twilight.” In the states, this is often results in a cold-shoulder snub or a gleeful hug, depending on what one’s opinion of Twilight is. In Nepal? Every audience got the joke and laughed immediately.
At the family gathering, we got a primer on some Hindu idiosyncrasies from Paul’s uncle, who let us know all about the old process of rubbing down one’s floors with cow dung and sprinkling oneself with cow urine to purify a space. Everyone laughed. Especially when considering what the Europeans must have thought.
How I would sum up Nepal? Everyone laughed a lot.
It was good.
Pictures, from top to bottom: 1) Prayer flags from Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, 2) the view from the architect-in-residence’s apartment in Patan Durbar Square, 3) a little girl feeding pigeons at Kathmandu Durbar Square with kohl on her eyes to protect her from jealousy, 4) a woman in a beautiful sari, one out of many, 5) a rickshaw driver.
Beijing wasn’t at all what I expected. Aside from the rip-off cabby, the masses of tourists, and, most notably, the public restrooms with many squat potties, but no doors of any kind, Beijing was kind of surprising. Nicely surprising, even.
The first thing I want to tell you all about is the streets. Long, wide boulevards cut the city into manageable boxes while a series of ring roads makes concentric circles of highways from the center. Bike lanes border the grid on all sides, and wide, lantern-dotted pedestrian sidewalks border those. Between the boxes, ancient alleyways meander in mazes full of history. Escaping from the massiveness of the city is as easy as ducking into one of these hutongs, and the entire city’s flat mass is easily navigated by bicycle. In fact, Andy and I took a 20 kilometer ride from the Forbidden City, which essentially functions as modern Beijing’s core, all the way up to the Olympic Park and back. It was great to be back on a bike, though our sore saddles meant navigating the city exclusively by foot and (stupendously cheap) subway the next. The city planning is beautiful. The map a treat to behold for urbanity nerds like me.
The next surprise I want to tell you about is the food. I was expecting it to be expensive, given the price of tours and accommodation, but to my delight it’s still easy to get a delicious bowl of noodles for about $1 in Beijing. We ate splendidly and with little effort, by walking into crowded hutong restaurants full of cigarette smoke and children and pointing to the most delicious-looking items in picture-book, Chinese-language menus. The one meal for which we planned and splurged, the one, the only Peking duck, was totally worth every yuan in the hefty bill. I promise to show you some pictures soon. In this regard, Beijing was closest to Tokyo in my book of travel experiences, as providing even simple tourists with easy access to the real food. You can simply stumble in and mime your way into piles of dumplings and tofu skin. You don’t have to know someone, you don’t have to escape a tourist ghetto–it’s all right there for you to take.
The Chineseness of Beijing’s modernity was surprising to me. I knew it would be modern, but I thought that it would veer closer to cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in its development, taking a strong Western influence. Even with downtown architecture mimicking western capitals like D.C. and Paris, and with some Houston-style McMansions sprinkled in the suburbs, the feeling was still overwhelmingly Chinese. That KFC? So Chinese. The mall? I can’t get over the Chineseness! The Starbucks? This is not the company I worked for in Massachusetts. The difference lies in how things are operated. International brands have had to adapt to the Chinese way of doing things to make money. GAP can’t exactly sell the nostalgia of 1969 via their blue jean line the way that they can in other locales, and Subway isn’t going to stretch profit margins by watering down soft drinks with ice in a nation that views cold beverages as bad for one’s health.
Yet despite everything’s very astute Chineseness, I was mostly surprised by the kinship I felt with China as an American. Our countries have so many similarities–on different scales, we’re both nations with incredible wealth and third-world conditions within the same borders. We both have ego problems: America wants to fulfill its destiny of being the best nation on Earth while China yearns to let loose the full roar of the dragon. We thrive on very conspicuous consumption on all levels of the economy for the same reasons–the American Dream and the Chinese Dream may very well be the exact same thing.
It may have just been that we were in the capital on National Day, but the pride in being Chinese mirrors that of Americans. Domestic tourists flooded Tiananmen Square on the national holiday, waving and wearing flags in a way that reminded me very much of the Fourth of July. The Chinese I talked to obviously have reservations with their country; they want more children*, more political parties, and the freedom to use Facebook, yet what American thinks the US is perfect and without flaw? I still feel pride in being an American despite the fact that my country is the only developed Western nation to ignore healthcare for the masses and has a penchant for running up our debt with war.
It’s what we have in common. And it shouldn’t have been a surprise–it’s so obvious!
*According to our Great Wall tour guide, China now apparently has a 1.5 child policy. If your first is a girl, you get one more try for a boy without having to pay a fine. While this step is considered crucial for minimizing the number of unwanted girls, it still blasts GIRLS ARE USELESS from the every drop of ink used to pen the amendment. Ah, progress.
So I’m in Beijing, behind the Great Firewall, so I can’t get to Facebook or Twitter despite my illicit VPN, which is its own kind of torture. We haven’t been here 24 hours and the adventures in miscommunication have been unreal.
Our flight landed at 1 am. Our plane was nearly empty, but the flight attendants had a hard time getting the handful of passengers to follow basic airline rules like sit down, wear your seatbelt, and don’t stand up with your iPod while unpacking your suitcase stored in the overhead bin in the midst of take-off. Exhausted, we made our way through customs and immigration to the taxi stand at the airport, fighting off fake taxi touts our whole way in line.
A tout yelled, “with meter 240! I give you 200! 200!”
“150,” replied Andy with his best haggling face.
The tout insisted on 200, so we stayed in our place in the airport-approved line.
After all our somber-looking fellow passengers get settled with cabs (they must have spent their energy running laps around the plane during the landing) and we make it to the front of the line, our cabby comes and takes us to his vehicle on the other side of the arrivals area.
A few kilometers in, Andy realizes the meter isn’t on.
We arrive at our hostel, and the cabby prints out a bill for 458 yuan–a total and complete rip-off, and an amount of money that we don’t even have. He starts yelling at us in Chinese, so we give him all the money we have, about 400, and run to our hostel with the sketchy receipt, where the receptionist confirms that we’ve been screwed. The cab cost to our location from the airport should be around 150, 200 at most. This is after our cabby in Kuala Lumpur (did I tell you we went there?) took us to the wrong airport, so we hopped in another expensive cab for the sake of catching our flight. Total cab fare for the day? $110.70 USD. Fail. Scammed. Fail. This time, we didn’t see it coming.
In our hostel, I get paranoid and lock up all of our belongings in our travel safe that barely made it through security from Kathmandu, despite our diplomatic airport status (long story).
This morning we wake up late and head out to find a sim card, a post office, a place to do laundry, and place to connect to the internet. We find a sim card first for Andy’s fancy new phone, but it’s too big and nothing is in English and we get it cut down, but it still doesn’t work. A message pops up in Chinese, and we click okay, which brings up a full menu only in Chinese characters. We select everything, exploring all options and/or breaking everything until we resign ourselves to defeat after nothing works.
We eat at the restaurant next door to our hostel that boasts an English menu. I ordered the “Big Noodle Face” and “Barely Article” which ended up being a Szechuan pepper noodle dish and a salad of some shredded mystery vegetable with cilantro and red peppers. We cannot communicate our desire for water, so Andy goes and picks one out of the cooler, which seemed like it was an okay thing to do.
After lunch, we search for internet, walking up and down the streets around our hotel searching for something cafe-like when we finally find a coffee shop with a big INTERNET sign sticking out. We order two American coffees and have the barista try his hand with Andy’s (brand new) phone. Nothing works. We leave with our coffees that we only bought out of desperation for internet and throw them away a few blocks down.
The hotel tells us that laundry is exorbitantly expensive, but gives us no alternatives. I have one clean skirt and one clean shirt left. Tonight, I will be hand washing jeans in the bathroom shared by the entire hostel, hoping no one else needs the shower.
We go to the post office. The nice guard motions us to the “international” slot for our 65 unstamped postcards. Well, they were stamped with Thai stamps, but we ran out of time in Bangkok to find a post office, so the postcards came with us to Nepal, Malaysia, and finally China. The nice woman at the post office charges us $45 to mail the stack to locations across the world, takes our post cards, and sends us off. We saw no evidence of postage. The Hindu god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, pops into my head, as I haven’t fully left Nepal behind.
We go back to the phone store for help. The sales rep has not learned any English in the four or so hours we’ve been gone. Somehow Andy communicates that his phone is not working, but all we hear is “recharge” and “next month” between long rambling phrases in Mandarin. Eventually the rep takes out a piece of paper and writes 50, 100, and then 10 –> 70K and 30 —> 100K. Andy pays the cashier 50 and then 100 yuan while the rep yells on Andy’s phone to a lady who I assume works for China Mobile. We believe K stands for kilobyte, and that Andy purchased the slower speed, but we will never be sure.
Everything is confusing and weird here, yet so modern and familiar at the same time after 10 months in Asia. Upon our nighttime arrival, Beijing reminded me so much of Minneapolis that I dreamt about the Minnesota city. In the day, it feels more like a cold LA. It’s just as polluted and modern and Chinese and rich and middle class as I imagined in the little corner of the city we’ve explored.
This may be the worst post I’ve ever written, but the girl sitting next to me is smacking her noodles so loudly I find it nearly impossible to think. I don’t want to be rude, but the best way I can describe to you the volume and character of the noise is to imagine a breast-feeding whale. I’m tempted to tell her she’s being a stereotype, but then again, I’m the white girl with the Apple products and the fair trade scarf, so I guess we’re in a stalemate.
Earlier today while stuck in a whirlpool 1000 spreadsheets and 100 postcards, we got a knock on the door. The knock was a good thing in that it meant I probably hadn’t imagined a previous knock shortly after alighting from the shower when Andy was in Bangkok picking up our Russian visas. Sanity is precious, after all.
The bad thing was that it was a man from the electric company who was coming to turn off our power. Power that we had most assuredly paid for with our very own money for the three months that we have lived in this particular apartment at the 7-11 down the street.
After much gesturing and many frantic phone calls and general communication breakdowns that would probably be amusing for you to read if I only had the wherewithal to recount them, we learned that the owners of the apartment that we rent had not paid the electric bill for May. If you recall, we moved to this particular housing unit three weeks into June. As the electric company turned off the power, Andy heroically found and presented the receipts for our energy charges and called our leasing agency while I did important things like change my clothes and drink a glass of water.
The amount of the overdue bill? 55 baht. Less than $2.00USD.
The electricity company came to turn off our power over a delinquent payment of $2.00. $2.00!
Things that cost more than $2.00:
- Dinner for two from most street carts and hole-in-the-wall noodle joints–even the shady ones.
- A bottle of Singha.
- A gas fill-up for a tiny, 100CC motorbike.
- The labor of the electrician and administrator who showed up at our apartment to turn off our electricity.
- An ice coffee.
- Nail polish.
- A stick of deodorant.
We do the logical thing and offer to pay the bill that is not ours on the spot just to keep our refrigerator running, but of course this is not possible. To pay the bill, we must go to the electric company on the other side of town bearing a purple piece of paper filled with complicated Thai sentences. The purple paper of shame handed to me by the very, very polite electrician who turned off our power.
Another thing that costs more than $2.00: A round-trip via songthaew from our apartment to the electricity company. We don’t have a motorbike anymore.
After fretting about with staff from the apartment building and electricity company for the better part of an hour, the leasing company finally calls back. They finally take care of the problem that was theirs. Their problem that they gave to us, the least-equipped set of people ever.
We recovered over bowls of khao soy.
These look like normal fresh beans, right? Maybe a cousin of the delicious fava? That’s what I thought when I picked up a pack for the steep price of $1 from the Tesco Lotus down the street. I couldn’t make out the name in Thai, and a crude translation named them cluster beans. Mmmmm, cluster beans.
I think it was a longing for a simple farmer’s market meal à la 101 Cookbooks that made me so excited about the verdant beans with their exorbitant price (like a farmer’s market!) and styrofoam backing (not like a farmer’s market!). As soon as I spotted them I imagined giving them a quick, high-heat sauté with just a bit of salt, a whisper of garlic, and perhaps a finish with the last bits of my elicit olive oil stash.
It came together well enough. I cooked about half the package until they were a bit scorched on the outside, but tender on the inside with a subtle crunch. If only I’d had a little parmesan and lemon zest to add a bit more dimension, but alas I live in Thailand…
I ate a few forkfuls enthusiastically, but on the fourth or fifth bean, I realized something was…off. I warned Andy not to try them, and fished the leftovers out of the fridge to see if I had perhaps accidentally selected my produce from the sale section of the produce aisle (side note: I love that Thai grocery stores have a sale section).
Nope. They were like steaming heap of excrement from a dog fed nothing but discount wet food: fresh as can be, yet totally nauseating at the same time. After a bit of quality Google time, I discovered the true nature of the beans by their name: STINK BEANS. Imagine the worst garlic breath you’ve ever had multiplied by 200 and infused with methane and natural gas. THAT is what it’s like to eat a stink bean.
With every breath, every exhale I polluted the ambient air in our apartment more and more. And it didn’t go away for a whole day. The stink bean smell stayed in the back of my throat, my breath, my…my…(this might be TMI) pee. It made me sick.
But when the effects waned, they waned completely. After two sleeps I woke up with only the usual morning breath and acknowledged my gratitude for the passing of the stink. I forgot about my encounter with the stink beans until a few days later, when I made toast with butter and jam for breakfast and was confronted by a mouthful of gross. Grossness in my mouth.
The leftover stink beans had perfumed everything in the refrigerator with a permeating gassy stench that seemed equal parts organic and chemical, including the delicate spreads for my morning bread.
It was my fault, of course; I meant to throw the beans away days ago. Yet every time I picked up the tightly wrapped satchel of green pods, I felt compelled to put them back in the refrigerator. I didn’t want the stink beans to sit in the trashcan, smelling up the entirety of our already smelly apartment, and I never remembered them when taking out the trash.
Let me tell you, stink bean-infused breakfast will give you the motivation to put on pants and make a very special garbage run. It might even inspire you to arrange the feisty little suckers on a plate and photograph them before you go.
I guess the moral of the story is never try anything new without first doing tons of research, and if you don’t like something, throw it away immediately. Right? That’s what I got out of all this.
Related Reading about Stink Beans:
- Our scooter landlord came and picked up scooty puff yesterday, and I am mourning her loss. Thanks for all the sweet rides, scooty puff.
- When it rains hard, we lose internet access and sewage bubbles up the pipes, so basically life isn’t worth living right now.
- I wore a pair of very tall red high heels out to Monkey Club, one of Chiang Mai’s trendiest music and drinking establishments a few nights ago, and for the first time I didn’t feel like a huge, pale leper with a troll nose. If only I had known earlier that fitting in is as easy as wearing Zara, getting blisters, and walking like a cyborg gorilla!
- At our apartment we have one overly friendly security guard who is really into speaking Thai with us, and by “really into speaking Thai with us,” I mean he questions us relentlessly in the attempt to see us squirm with incomprehension. Last night when I went to pick up some dinner, he asked, as everyone does, “gin kow lao?” This basically translates to, “eaten yet?” and is used in small talk much like “What’s up?” in America. However the phrase’s literal translation is closer to, “eat rice already?” Because I can’t ever do the easy thing, I decided this would be the perfect time to explain that while I was going to eat dinner, I certainly wouldn’t be eating rice. Though I thought my Thai was excellent, given the look on his face, I’m pretty sure all he heard was, “No rice! Formal evening meal. Rice no food bad. America!”
- I am on a mission to pack the perfect minimal fall wardrobe into a carry-on. I think I am failing because I have not been in cold weather since that trip to Pai in February, and anything under 70 degrees sounds like it will require the pelts of three to four bears to obtain adequate warmth. Here is what I have: four button up t-shirts, and handful of tank-tops, three thin wool-blend sweaters, one fleece, one fake pashmina-style scarf, my fake Thai chucks, a pair of nice leather shoes without a tongue, four pairs of sweater tights, some random socks, three pairs of pants, one pair quick dry pants (for Mongolia), two skirts, PJ pants. I do not have a winter coat because I had a panic attack in a Bangkok mall and decided to drink some tea and watch ice skaters instead. It was a good choice.
- I have pinned all my hopes on Beijing for finding an adequate winter coat and Russia for a tall fur hat.
- I think I will regret packing my hiking shoes (because I’ll probably thrown them away after Siberia) and not packing my hiking shoes (because then I’ll have to throw away my chucks).
- Did I ever tell you about the time I was ridiculed in a Parisian nightclub for my vintage turquoise ski jacket? No? Okay, here goes.
Ah, a Sunday morning at Bickford’s diner in Worcester. My shirt has been blurred, because the shirt was part of a Halloween costume that might not be considered family friendly, and I have a reputation to protect. This is the only known photo of the notorious jacket.
It happened like this: I rescued a ski jacket from my friend Laura’s Goodwill pile because I loved the color and it looked warm and I was terrible at keeping myself warm when I lived in Massachusetts. In 2006, I thought the jacket worked as an ironic piece that paired well with my wardrobe full of used clothes, concert tees, and items lovingly culled from Buffalo Exchanges round the country; I felt bad ass with my torn Levi’s, faded Sonic Youth tee, and my chucks when I wore this jacket, and I assumed that badassery would travel well.
Enter Paris. I go out with my cousin Theo for an authentic Disco experience. As we walk to the club, I buy a can of Guinness–the kind with the nitro ball–and feel as cool as an American 20-year-old can possibly feel as I walk down the street with a beer, iPod ear buds wrapped ’round my neck, and a fresh 20 Euro note from my Dad in my pocket. We arrive to a long line filled with men wearing sleek sweaters and tailored pants, and girls shivering their little heinies off in cocktail dresses. A few guys have flat-billed baseball caps and puffy jackets, clearly taking some style inspiration from their American friends. They catch my eye and do a head nod of solidarity. These are my people, the Parisian puffy jacket renegades, and I think I flashed them a peace sign, or something equally as lame as I pound the rest of my beer and get ready to face the trio of door people.
The woman is obviously the ringleader of the bouncers, standing in the front and calling the shots, with her henchmen ready to use muscle where needed on command. As we approach, Theo nervously tells me to act cool, speak some English if necessary, and basically do anything to deflect from my giant, puffy, turquoise jacket that has been the subject of lengthy death-wish glares from the door woman for the duration of our time standing in line. I have not charmed the gatekeeper of electrobeats and overpriced watery drinks with my ironic wardrobe piece, the pounding of a beer in line, or consorting with men with urban style, and I am deflated.
Theo speaks to the woman in French as I pull out my passport. I mention something about being in a band to the nearest henchman and basically project boredom and put on airs until they let us in to the cavernous space below, where I am subjected to like 7 hours of nonstop house music and learn the true definition of Euro trash. I nurse two gin and tonics over the hours and think about my friends in Massachusetts doing much chiller things, cursing Paris all the while.
The next morning my jacket smells like a wet, dirty cigarette and I hate that I must wrap it around my body for warmth. It’s an early wake-up call; my dad has decided we’re going to explore Sacre Coeur. I am miserable for the rest of the day.
Two years later, on my next trip to Paris, I opted for a long, pink and white brocade coat, known to many as Couch Coat. It was still too colorful for most people, and I certainly didn’t fit in, but I was saved from the glares of evil door ladies. Feeling like a frumpy American or grungy backpacker sucks; it’s like going straight back to sixth grade and not having the cool shoes or the right haircut and feeling terrible about it. As such, I’m feeling a bit anxious about my fall wardrobe that has to last me through Europe this time around.
[Warning: This post is going to contain every picture of a toilet I've ever Instagrammed in Thailand and lots of text on the subject, too.]
On a recent train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, a drunken Dutchman screamed, “Use the one on the right!” at me as I sashayed between the dining car drunks and the potty.
I obeyed the drunk man and entered the stall on the right, finding myself in a small room with walls the color of an old diner’s coffee cup interiors and with dull steel appliances protruding from every direction. The room’s largest feature was the toilet, coming out of the back wall and taking up the majority of the floor space with its creamy beige seat cover and wide metal bowl emptying directly over the train tracks whisking by below. Above the bowl, a shower head dangled limply, slowly leaking water drop-by-drop onto the seat below. To its side a plastic grip clasped a spray nozzle with a metal hose that seemed to be waiting for some industrious kitchen worker to come and pressure wash a stubborn burned spot of macaroni and cheese off of an aluminum pan. At its base lay a small lever that begged for a foot stomp over a textured black floor-cum-bath mat. Across from the toilet lay a small square sink nestled into a corner powered on by yet another foot lever. A peculiar smell wafted up from that sink, which led my attention to the fine glaze of liquid covering the toilet’s seat.
The drunken Dutchman, it seems, had tried his best to help the petite American girl to a more familiar, comforting setting to spend some private time on a train. Kind of cute, actually, but this room wasn’t for me. I turned around, exited the bathroom, and choose the door on the left.
This bathroom had the same corner sink and foot lever, but instead of the intrusive toilet dripping with condensation, shower water, and other less pleasant things to name in a list on a family friendly website, it featured a simple jazzercise-like step with a hole in the middle and a round, metal, shell-like structure protruding from the back-end, like a shield to the wall, which was adorned with several metal hand bars.
I walked back to the dining car and the drunken Dutchman said, “You chose the left! You chose the left! I tried to help you!” Then he went back to singing very loud drinking songs with his friends, while my group plotted ways to make the Thai dining car less about the Dutch and more about America. It’s our nature; we can’t help it.
But back to the toilets.
The American toilet is spreading round the world swiftly with brute, imperialistic force. Remote bus stations excepted, nearly everywhere I go seems to be falling hard to the hegemonic force of the “throne,” or sit-up toilet, with squat toilets only provided as an afterthought–a necessary deviation from the average, much like a disabled stall or urinal.
For instance, when I first visited Paris as a 12-year-old, I easily peed all over my pants while trying to navigate the hole-in-the-ground style potty. When I visited seven years later, I only found thrones. This observation obviously proves my point about the American toilet conquering foreign lands.
I have many arguments and rationalizations for a squat toilet preference, but it essentially comes down to this: public toilets, even those reserved exclusively for women, are generally so disgusting and covered with pee that one is tempted to hover above the seat in a mock squat. However, it is this very mock-squatting that leads to the highly unsanitary conditions that provoke us to hover in the first place. It’s a terrible loop and cycle that will never be broken in my lifetime. Therefore, I choose to squat when I can. Not only is there less of a chance that I’ll accidentally sit down on some mystery liquid whilst trying to empty my bladder, it’s more comfortable that essentially popping into awkward pose in a small, sometimes moving (in the case of a train) bathroom.
Furthermore, I’m inclined to note that cultures that make squatting part of everyday life, whether on the toilet or off, tend to have better overall knee health than Americans. There are also health benefits to the posture one must assume in a squat potty.
Of course, there are drawbacks, mainly the handle bars that I imagine fester with fecal matter and the bacteria within. While most people with healthy knees can manage to avoid holding on, sometimes it’s necessary (see the train example yet again) to take advantage of the support offered. It’s wise to come prepared for this situation and employ tissues as a barrier, obviously remembering to wash your hands after the fact. Isn’t that what we should be doing anyway, no matter what form the toilet lying beneath our collective bum takes?
You know, I could continue writing about squat toilets for another three paragraphs or so, but I think it’s time to wrap things up while I’m still under 1000 words. I’ll also make you a promise: I solemnly swear NEVER to inundate your computer screen with pictures of and words about toilets to this level ever again.
In the meantime, I’m curious. What’s your take on popping a squat?
No one has the excuse for boredom in Yangon so long as they are able to stroll down the city’s colonial grid-system streets. Delightfully designed by happenstance and history, Yangon feels like a bustling city in the midst of ruins, as many of the buildings built by the British have been left to languish in a purposeful neglect. What results is a real life jungle gym for grown-ups, a world full of texture that seem plucked from an artist’s imagination. Yangon gets the Oscar for Best Art Direction, the Tony for Best Choreography and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry after you take it all in.
First, you have the sidewalks themselves. Like many cities in Southeast Asia, entrepreneurs in Yangon consider sidewalks fair game for setting up shop. Whether it’s a one man, one stool frying operation or a whole tea shop, including rain cover, table and chairs, and coal-burning stoves, the sidewalks are cluttered with commercial enterprises.
There are literally thousands of people trapped under this gutter.
What’s different about Yangon, however, is that the narrow space left around the sidewalk entrepreneurs brims with obstacles that veer closer to treacherous than merely inconvenient. Flooding, raining, and draining is a part of life in a monsoon climate, and dealing with a visible sewage system is commonplace around the region. Yangon’s are right under your feet. A current runs under the sidewalk covered only by small slabs, many of which are broken, or misplaced, tipping and swiveling with your footsteps. Others are completely missing, meaning that a foul step late at night could lead put you on a missing persons list. When it rains, the drains roar, and a small river takes forms just inches away from the sidewalk’s surface.
The solid parts of the sidewalk flanking the drain are not smooth and free. Often, they’re crumbling. It’s common for an industrious street vendor to fix a wobbly table or secure papers with an errant piece of pavement. Every part that remains between the drains, rubble, and street vendors runs red with the spit of betel nut chewers. The newer spots glisten bright and bloody while the old spots fade to a dry maroon indicating they’re safe to step on. Even the seemingly unobstructed stretches of pavement contain their own perils. Twice I slipped and fell on a hidden collection of slippery moss.
This sidewalk looks wholesome and well-groomed, but I tripped and fell and busted my knees twice along this stretch. Also, that white mist is condensation IN MY CAMERA LENS. It was that humid.
Once you’ve successfully navigated the physical obstacles on the ground, you’ve got to master the space above your head in a little dance I like to call the Umbrella Check Shuffle. In the rainy season most everyone, especially vendors, must have a plan to deal with the rain, whether that’s a fancy umbrella, a cardboard box, or book or periodical sacrificed to the monsoon. Some set up large, circular outdoor types while others fashion rain shelters out of tarps and twigs. Sometimes a sidewalk will be full covered from the artful overlap of umbrellas and awnings. Others have torrents pouring between the gaps. The key to staying dry is to find the correct angle to tilt your umbrella to navigate between the series of rain defense structures while accounting for the movement and umbrellas of other side walkers. Generally, this just leads to sort of mosh pit where everyone jostles and shoves their fellow pedestrians via umbrella. As a personal space-loving American, I prefer this to real pushing with hands and shoulders in many other places.
The sidewalks of Yangon are so needy, constantly begging for your attention with their subtle threats to break your ankle, swallow you whole, or have you knock down a series of sidewalk entrepreneurs with a misplaced umbrella. Yet the relationship between sidewalk and walker proves more complex, as the pavement demands a sensory-heightening mindfulness and rewards the intrepid for their bravery.
Yummy fruit smells on a slick, yet miraculously obstacle-free sidewalk.
The first reward is olfactory. Despite sewage running in currents beneath your feet, Yangon smells delicious, with the soft scent of sandalwood and incense seeming to multiply in the humidity. Fresh markets disperse ripe fruit aromas into the air, while somehow, magically, the stench of seafood and waste stays down at sewer level. Street side grills perfume the sidewalks with a smokey charcoal campfire scent, sometimes punctuated with a burst of garlic or curry. Even the durian smells fresher, sweeter, and less like a poisonous gas leak. Once inside, however, the smell will linger on clothing and become stale and damp–it’s only good on the sidewalks, when it’s alive.
Your eyes feast as well. Colors and textures abound, refusing to be muted by the cloudy monsoon skies. Mostly the colors come from the vendors with their bright umbrellas, tables, chairs, and colorful wares, but it doesn’t end there. Green plant life covers pastel buildings and trees spring from cracks in colonial stone. Women and men wear long skirts (longyis) of fabric, sometimes silk, making the pedestrian traffic an undulating wave of color. Hindu temples, mosques, and bright gold payas dot the grid, each providing their own aesthetic take on the supernatural, spiritual, traditional.
Bells on the spinning wheel of a sugar cane press.
Calls for prayer emanate through the streets from mosque speakers, while the Buddhist payas broadcast their own messages. Any venturer knows their proximity to a sugarcane juicer by the bells that spin on the vibrant wheels that grind and squeeze the cane into a fresh juice. City bus employees hang from open bus doors, shouting the route of their particular vehicle. When the power goes out across the city, the generators switch on, their white noised hum filling in the gaps between hawkers shouting the merits of their wares in near-perfect English. Everywhere an obvious foreigner walks, he or she is greeted with a friendly, yet loud “HAL-LO!”
“HAL-LO Lady Gaga!”
“HAL-LO Spice Girl!”
…and people think the Burmese are cut off from the rest of the world. I got not one, but two Lady Gaga references while walking the streets, despite being covered from neck to quick-dry pant clad ankle and thus looking more like a sporty Stephani Germanotta than her pop-star alter ego.
The swirling activity, sensory overload, and interactions with the seriously friendly Yangonese help detract from the suffocating humidity and pollution from hoards of dirty, pre-1989 vehicles. Still, the street can be overwhelming, which is why tea shops and cafés are so important and densely-packed in number and in customers. A quick stop for some sweet, milky tea or a packet of betel nut and lime revives the weary walker in an instant and provides the perfect place to plop down and observe the lively streams of commerce, religion, food, and drink that swarm round the urban ruins.
First, I have a travel column in Vagabundo Magazine. It’s called From the Dining Car with Susan Sharp. My first column published this morning and it’s all about everyone’s favorite subject: me! Read it here. Future columns will delve into discovering a new place or culture through the food found along the railways between Beijing and Southampton, UK.
Second, Andy and I decided to do something completely unexpected or already assumed (depending on who you ask), and make our relationship legal. We’re going to get married! The best reaction to the news was from my nephew Andrew, who when asked if he wanted to be a ring bearer yelled, “WHHHYYYYYYY???!!!!” and buried his head in his arms.
We’ve given ourselves two weeks to see if we can nail down a venue and date in Austin from Thailand. If that doesn’t happen, we will put off planning until we return to the US in 2013. Don’t worry, this won’t become one of those DIY wedding blogs, though I may share marriage or wedding customs from the countries we visit in the meantime.
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Hi! I'm Susan, and this is my travel journal. You can read more about me here.
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