Serious Buddhism – Myanmar Post Script

A few weeks ago you may remember in the ‘Candy Crush as a Path to Enlightenment?’ post I mused over Buddhism.

Well, Myanmar is the most seriously Buddhist place we’ve ever been. Makes the monks of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia look like lightweights. So serious indeed, that in Yangon, a young New Zealand national found himself on the wrong side of the law when it comes to the Buddha. He is part owner of a bar that had a sign with the Buddha wearing headphones advertising happy hour. This was not looked upon kindly by the authorities and he’s been convicted and serving 2 years for ‘insulting the Buddha’.

A recent news article that my sister sent me, highlights that Buddhism is not immune from misogyny. Myanmar has been taking heat from the UN for its treatment of the Rohingyas, a heavily persecuted minority. In Myanmar they do not actually have citizen rights and the UN Special Rapporteur cited in a report. A Monk Leader, actively opposing rights for Rohingyas, then referred to her in the press as a ‘whore’ and a ‘bitch’.

Fortunately these views are not widely held and this monk has been condemned for his statement. This underscores my earlier point that the monks rather than all kumbya and chilled are an integral part of maintaining the social order – even if it as the expense of a minority.

Would we go back? Yes, the people were met were lovely and they really went out their way to ensure we had a positive experience. The world is full of countries with lovely people and terrible governments. If we didn’t travel because of the government or the voice of the more unsavoury elements – we’d never go anywhere.

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People and Power

This is my last post about Myanmar and I’m devoting it to impressions of the people and politics. Since there is heavy censorship I thought it best to publish this after leaving. Warning – its a long one.

We almost visited Myanmar in 2010, but held off due to the elections that had just been held. The first ones in decades it was touch and go how it was going to go. The dust had just settled from ill-fated Saffron revolution and cyclone Nargis. Plus, the National League of Democracy, NLD had boycotted elections and was urging visitors to stay away. So we did. Fast forward to 2014, the sanctions that previously rendered Myanmar as pariah state have been lifted and the NLD officially lifted its tourism boycott. There has been much coverage in the news about Myanmar’s reforms and efforts to attract foreign investment. So just how democratic is the country and are the people benefitting from this new found connection to the global economy?

Myanmar ranks 156 out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Meaning that bribery as a means to get anything done by the government at both a macro and micro level is almost a given. While the military has ‘officially’ released the reigns of power, it still holds much sway – both in public and private sphere (think crony capitalism). On 27 December, a few days after leaving Yangon the Yangon Central Development Committee (Y.C.D.C.) held elections. The English language local press had headlines criticizing the lack of transparency and the voting limit laws. Despite having more than 8 million people, only 400,000 people could vote. This was due to strict eligibility requirements which did not allow those that did not have a long history of residency to register. Furthermore, voting was limited to one person per permitted household. Finally, candidates had to approved by the military. I was surprised by the candid articles given that freedom of the press in Myanmar is ranked 169 out of 179 by Transparency International.

In autocratic environments power can manifest in curious ways. In Yangon we were struck by the absence of motorbikes. For those experienced Asian travelers, being in the country’s biggest city with no motorbikes in kinda surreal. So we asked Nancy, the Canadian expat at her Tuesday night art gallery party – her story was that a high ranking government official had an accident on a motorbike and banned them the next day. In our day with M. & W. (its wise not to use names of those who speak candidly about Myanmar politics) we asked if this was true. Their version was different, apparently there was a confrontation with a motorbike gang and the police, where the gang verbally assaulted the police and gave them the finger. The next day motorbikes were banned in Yangon city limits. We heard this version in other areas of Myanmar, too. Whatever the truth, clearly the ability to issue decrees regardless of reason still exists. Ah, the perks of almost absolute power.

As per the Lonely Planet we were careful not to initiate political discussions with locals, so we were surprised that some freely brought up their views on Myanmar politics. Aung San Suu Kyi was often referred to as as ‘Our mother’. In almost every home, restaurant and hotel we visited there was a picture of her and her late father Aung Sun, who was the father of Burmese Independence. He’s an interesting character: In WW2 he sided with the Japanese and fought against the British, but after a few years of being on the receiving end of Japan’s ‘Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ decided the British weren’t so bad and joint the allied cause in Asia. He was assassinated in 1947 and now many markets, streets, important buildings and the like named after him. Now his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi , who was 2 at the time of his death, is widely revered and in monasteries we saw framed pictures of her and various monks. While her party the NLD is the official opposition, according to the 2008 constitution there is a clause that specifically prohibits her from being the president ( because she was married to a foreigner and her children hold UK passports). The military based party also holds veto power over any legislation. A national election is due to be held in 2015 of which I will follow with interest. Will reforms continue or will the military follow the way of Hun Sen in Cambodia, the wily and extremely corrupt political operator who, despite reforms, has managed to have political power dating back to his time with the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese backed government or will reforms progress further? Those we had conversations were encouraged when we told them that we’d seen footage of the monk’s protests in 2007. They were happy to know that people around the world know about them and support them in their struggle.

I read an article about foreign investment in Myanmar in the Jakarta Post today which mentioned that the per capita GDP is $1000 USD, so it remains a very poor country, this rises to $3,000 in Yangon. Despite this we saw very few people that appeared without basic sustenance – as I’ve mentioned in previous posts plentiful food available and in the countryside villages almost every home had its own garden plot. In one village we noted it was a ‘two cow’ & cart in the drive kinda place. There were lots of modest homes, but we saw more concrete than bamboo. Most of the country still relies on wood to heat homes and cook meals – this along with illegal logging are the two primary deforestation concerns. Then you see modern innovation, such as the villages around Kalaw without conventional electricity that had mini solar panels in each garden with a line running back to the house.

School is not free, neither is health care. The orphanage associated with the monastery we visited was paying off malaria hospital bills. We saw loads of children in their school uniforms (white shirts and solid green longyis – like sarongs that are worn widely by men, women & children) biking and walking with their stacked stainless steel lunch containers to and from school. So adorable & friendly. M told us that his village did not actually have a school – which is hard to imagine. The  remote areas of Chin, Shan and Kachin states have seen decades of low level civil war which has deprived them of such basic facilities – these areas are off limits to foreigners. Primary school goes up to age 11 and most of the school kids we saw were of that age. Some locals talked about inaccessibility of education due to cost. We saw evidence of this first had – they were few girls older in school uniforms, they appeared to be working in markets. The ‘Traffic Light’ tea shop appeared to be a family business, with service provided by their two young boys working very long hours. W. There is no doubt that people would love to have their children in school if they had the means. W. is from a village outside Mandalay and he proudly told us about his single mother who worked in the fields and was a seamstress to send him and his siblings to secondary school and university.

What was common throughout the country with all the super friendly locals was that the young people in particular want change are hopeful for the future. We met some people like M. who were very political and wanted to be part of the change. His dream is to work overseas, save money and come back and build a school in his village. W. wanted to finish his law degree. T. who we met in Kalaw, a young businessmen is the local representative for the NLD. Then others, were not so political, such as Joe our second trekking guide who wants to be a famous trekking guide like his ‘uncle’ and famous mentor Sam (thanks to the Lonely Planet). The other common characteristic was their admirable English. Joe took us to meet his English teacher who resided in this British area stone home beautifully perched on a mountain side in Kalaw, she graciously gave us a tour & in perfect grammar school English explained the history of the house. This place looked was amazing and would not look out of place on Vancouver Island. Then there was M. was self taught and found Spider Man movies particularly helpful. Of course there was the influence of music as the Kalaw rock starts informed us. Even the young kid who ferried us and our bikes across Inle Lake associated Canada and his knowledge of English to Music. ‘Canada – Bryan Adams’, we were delighted that he did not cite ‘Justin Bieber’ like most of the other locals. When I asked ‘Bieber’ out of surprise he promptly responded with ‘Bieber – no like’. Hey kid, you’re ok in my books.

Myanmar by comparison to other South East Asian countries is expensive. Hotels are about double. For mid-range we paid $80 – $140. The most expensive at Inle Lake, a boutique hotel which almost doubled its rates in the November to February high season. According to a Swedish family we met they said their guide told them that in general the cost of living is higher for locals than in neighbouring countries. We had wondered, I just assumed that the double accommodation cost was somehow ending up in the coffers of the military and its cronies. My cynicism believes that this government wouldn’t be opening its doors so eagerly if it wasn’t making money off of it. Fortunately, as independent travelers you can give your money through goods and services to the people. As usual we bought as close as we could to the source of labour and bought souvenirs at fair trade cooperatives.

Of course, given the monk penchant for smart phones and our obsession with watching them use them to enhance monk-ly activities, we just had to find out how much the smart phones cost. Joe told said ‘not expensive like 10,000 – 15,000 kyat’ which is 10 – 15 USD. Huawei, the Chinese tech giant appears to have saturated in Myanmar. This the same company that Canada, Australia & the US have all banned from domestic telecommunications contracts due to suspected cyber terrorism.

South East Asia is an interesting place to observe the whole US versus China (People Republic) battle for hearts and minds play out. Those we asked were pro-China, seeing it as a source of economic opportunity. While America wins hands down for culture and the influence of ‘democracy’. The locals based on what they’re used to do not see the same monied political & partisan dysfunction that I see, to them America still represents a better way It is no question better than what they’ve got – freedom of the press, relatively free elections, better access to education & to healthcare (if you’re insured). Which brings me back to my query at the beginning of this post – just how democratic is Myanmar and which way will it go? The China model of authoritarian capitalism offers a reform path that is more palatable to those currently in power. I think it will come down the issue if the people’s desire  reform be satisfied purely by consumerism or will they want more of what of democratic civil society. Based on the people that shared their stories and their vision, they want the latter, but I’m not sure they’ll get it without a fight or a lot of external pressure. I know I’ll be watching with interest.

If you’ve managed to read through this marathon post and would like see rather than just read about our trip, we’ve started to post our photos online. So far, Yangon is up, looking very out of place on our dive photo site. Enjoy.

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Flora & Fauna

Yeah! I survived 17 days in peanut laden Myanmar. I did’t want  jinx to write this before clearing Myanmar airspace. Many of you know that I have large appetite and eat 6 times a day. Much to Dave’s chagrin I was only able to curb my caloric demands back to 4 meals daily. Thus it was necessary to learn ‘I’m allergic to nuts’ in the local language. The language is tonal and it was not an easy task. Furthermore the locals, completely unaccustomed to foreigners saying anything other than ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ would look at us with blank stares. I’d show it to them in writing on my iPhone and then they’d repeat back exactly what we thought we had just said. All of them ‘got it’ and even checked on the oil to ensure they weren’t inadvertently giving me peanut oil.

Sadly much of Myanmar cuisine was off limits – salads and curries in particular. Salads are a big thing there, with many non-salad ingredients being featured in very unique salads, such as tea leaf salad made with green tea leaves and then laced with peanuts and sesame. By mistake, a little place in Inle Lake called the Bamboo Hut had promised to make one for Dave without peanuts. But they forgot between the ordering and the prep. We learned that food is so fresh because it is made to order, so almost an hour had passed before our food arrived due to the other table’s large order.  (Myanmar Travel Tip: order your food well in advance of actually being hungry, it is going to be a wait) I could immediately see the peanuts, Dave had already tucked in and he seemed to be enjoying it so much that I didn’t have the heart to stop him, plus he was already contanimated. He seemed fine with the trade off to avoid physical contact with me for what he put it as the ‘familiar, delicious and usually off limits’ flavours. In retrospect, not too sure how I feel that… but apparently giving up nuts for marriage is a big deal. They also have ‘Samosa’ salad, which looked delicious but again was peanut laden. Curries had the oil and crushed peanuts so firmly off limits for me.

I managed to find a few local dishes I could eat – Shan Noodles to which I kept requesting coriander and chillies to, as Dave puts in ‘Vietnamise it’.  Grilled meat would have been ok, we saw lots of this, but as a former vegetarian and vegan I like to actually be able to identify the animal and cut prior to eating – not possible in most circumstances. The highlight for me was avocados. There were in season, plump and juicy on every street market and hanging on the trees. I enjoyed avocado salad usually twice a day, so I reckon I ate about 3 per day almost every day of our visit.

I think they grow everything you could possibly want to eat there. The streets of Yangon at every turn appeared to be selling every kind of fruit and vegetable. On our trekking in Kalaw they appeared to grow everything – fields of cabbages, cauliflower, beans, lentils, tomatoes, ginger, coffee and tea. I got a bit obsessed in knowing what everything was and observing how it was grown. Should I dig those holes for my cauliflower? Should I adopt their method of trussing my beans? Holy crap, dragon fruit grows on cactus like trees – crazy!

At Inle Lake they have ‘floating gardens’. The marshy lake has a big section where you have floating soil, looks like 50 – 100 cm think, anchored by bamboo poles into the shallow lake bed. They were growing flowers (for Buddha offering), marrows, beans, tomatoes. Row after row with locals paddling on little wooden boats tending to their crops. I felt vindicated to see that their tomatoes looks brown and wilted as the appearance of my tomato vines causes me much gardening angst. The floating gardens are great to cruise through but there is a down side. They don’t do organic gardening in Myanmar and have embraced the use of pesticides for these types of farms, which is starting to have a negative impact on the sensitive lake ecosystem.

On the street there was food of all sorts for sale from fruit, veggies, fried treats and even cat food. Little compact bags for easy distribution to the felines hanging out in the temple. I really wanted to buy some, to take the crazy cat lady to new levels but I could not bear Dave’s sustained mocking. In the markets I would bypass the trinkets and head straight for the ‘produce aisles’. I wondered why their weren’t more travellers checking out the food. ‘Most people don’t have a produce obsession like you’ says Dave diplomatically. It all looked so amazing in the fields and markets that I kept fantasying about having Luke Nguyen in tow, selecting ingredients with me and serving up delicious meals whenever hunger struck – which was often.

One of our trekking guides were told that most of the time the cows and water buffalo were not on the menus because the Buddhists believe that since these animals work in the fields to produce food they should not be eaten. There are myriad of rules and permits to get to in order to kill a cow for Muslim festivals. Not sure if that is out of respect for the cow or the increasing trend in Myanmar towards discrimination of Muslims. We did read in the local English paper that there is a real shortage of cows due to the black export markets to Thailand and China.  Most of the meat was fish or chicken. After seeing the raw sewage pour into rivers and lakes, fish was a no go so we stuck to chicken – its plentiful and usually very fresh, almost guaranteed to be clucking just a few hours prior to my plate.

People were also incredibly proud of their food and went out of their way to to make sure you had enough to eat. One our two treks we did the guide prepared the food. On first day of trekking we ate in a local’s house. She was really friendly and had a little baby girl Guun. I had a lot of fun playing with the baby and their really friendly chilled out family tabby cat. The meal started with fruit, then was followed by noodles and avocados. On the second day, after hiking to the top of the mountain outside the village we stopped at a monastery and the monk invited us in for tea. It was late morning and the sun was high so we took him up on his offer. We settled down inside and were promptly greeted by the friendly resident cat at (much to my delight a reoccurring theme). The old monk brought us a thermos of green tea. He then channeled my late grandmother and proceeded to bring snack after snack. Arrow root biscuits. Roasted peanuts – no thank you, allergic in Myanmar language. How about sliced peanuts with other nuts like cashews? Uh, no thank you, allergic. Ok, then how about popped rice (which looks yummy) roasted in peanut oil? Hmm, again no thank you. It took some persuading to convince him that we had more than enough food and to join us. He was good humoured and even posed for a picture with Son of Beaver (SOB). What’s your cat’s name I ask. “Pussy, Puss’ he laughs.

I like being in countries where animals are cared for, I interpret that to mean that people have a caring attitude towards all living things, even those that are not ‘owned’ by people. Aside from the overworked horses in Bagan, people in Myanmar seemed to treat animals with respect – which is refreshing after places like Bali, sub-saharan Africa, India (for all animals other than cows) where most of the animals are terrified of people and look worse for wear. That didn’t stop me from wanting adopt all the cats and dogs on the street. If it weren’t for Dave’s rule of 2:1 pet to human ratio in our house there is no telling how many I’d bring home.  Fortunately there are no rule as of yet at our house which limits the space devoted to my gardening obsession.

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Bed rest

Dave has ordered me to rest. What was to supposed to be our rather painless VIP sleeper bus experience last night was full of discreet agony. Seems I’ve come down with something or I ate something that really didn’t agree with me. Out of courtesy to those who take the time to read my musing, I shall refrain from the gory details.

We had our ‘dinner stop’ last night, we get out of this bus and are greeted by this very friendly, well cared for beautiful German Shepard dog with a distinguished grey haired muzzle. As we head to our table, the doggie reaches up with his front paw as if to say hello, he kept on with his paw as we sat down. He had little interest in our food and declined my noodle offer. Dave mused that he was a reincarnation of the Littlest Hobo (disclaimer – only Canadians will understand & be amused this reference). ‘What’s that old boy, trouble at the old mill? Does someone need help?’ we thought he was saying. But at 3 am, sick as a dog on the bus I said to Dave maybe we misinterpreted him, perhaps it should have been ‘what’s that old boy? Don’t eat the noodles?’

So now as I recuperate in bed my not so inner hypochondriac takes over. This is not entirely unjustified as many of you know I don’t have the most robust immune system. We ate the same things, Dave is in better shape, so not sure if it’s anything food poisoning. Could it be my tumble into that cesspool of a ditch – did some noxious waterborne microbe infect me? As I’m getting on the bus last night, I cautiously navigate the ditch and warned the guy next to me of the danger to our left. I told him I fell into one the day before. He looks suitably horrified. ‘It was only my right foot and leg up to my calf’. He looks down at the water, ‘still, I’d be scarred for life if that happened to me’.  And some of you may think I was being mellow dramatic…

So been attacked by a dog, fell in the sewer ditch and very ill for hours on an overnight bus.  Really, I’m having a good time. We’ve had lots of fun, really. Dave says my mind is too much like a monkey & ordered me to stop typing, so must rest now.  We’re off to Singapore tomorrow. This better not get in the way of diving…

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Traffic Lights

Myanmar has a plethora of teashops. They sell black tea sweetened with condensed milk (tastes better than it sounds), have thermoses of free green tea freely available like water and serve up tasty fried snacks like samosas and other yummy fried doughy treats. We’ve been to a few as they’re ‘safe’, they are frequented by locals, dirt cheap and hence do not use the dreaded peanut oil. So we decided to ease into our day and stop at the teashop before getting our bikes and heading to the winery. This particular teashop is on a ‘main corner’ in Nyuang Shwe. So main, this intersection is that it got a brand new set of lights on the second day of our visit. Bright and shiny. One problem though, the lights on the north – south street of the intersection are on the wrong side. Meaning, if you are heading north the lights that you would normally across the road and above and instead directly above. They were as you would normally see in the east – west street with lights across the intersection for that lane of traffic.

We’re not sure if this oversight had anything to do with the police that were manning this intersection. The first day they were out there directing traffic. On day 2 they had retreated to the roadside. Lucky for them, this intersection happened to have a teashop on the south east corner with tables outside on the street. This teashop had a boy who looked no older than 12 years waiting on tables ( we later confirmed 14, meaning he finished his elementary education but looks like did not have the opportunity for secondary ) and distributing fried snacks with tea. It must be noted that we had no say in the matter as to what snacks we would be eating, he just brought us whatever he thought we should be having!

Dave points out at the table on the corner just to the left of us are three men. One of them is a policeman. He’s sitting there having his tea, hanging out with these other guys and when he sees something amiss, he blows his whistle and is all up in the intersection doing his police business. This is brilliant – he’s taken the North American stereotype of the cop in the doughnut shop to a whole new level. He’s actually policing from the teashop, tea and Asia fried dough treat in hand! Chief Wiggum would indeed be proud.

We are watching with great interest how the offenders of the new street light protocol were handled. A middle aged guy go through a red light. Whistle blows. He’s pulled aside, is suitably apologetic and is let off, with what we presume is a warning. A few other offenders are dealt with in similar fashion. Some bikes just keep going and ignore the whistle. The police guy looks annoyed, but doesn’t go after them, too far from his tea I suppose.

Then out of nowhere, 3 black and white cows come up the street from the south. No person appears to be leading or even accompanying these cows. What makes this even more surreal is these particular cows are the standard western looking jersey ones rather than the light coloured ones with the hump that we’d seen everywhere in our Myanmar travels. They are just walking along in a queue right into the intersection with red light. Will chaos ensue? Dave and I speculate about these, where did they come from? Where is their person? Did we just teleport to India? We’re on the edge of our little wooden stools tea in hand. The police man, sensing the imminent danger, blows his whistle, leaps up from his seat and goes to the street uttering commands. Much to our amazement, these cows, as if on queue turn left in the middle of the intersection all in perfect row and head west side by side now with the traffic. Still no human with these cows. Have they gone AWOL? These are seriously badass, yet oddly compliant cows. We’re in hysterics by this point (ok, maybe you HAD to be there)

Then it gets serious, three young guys on two motorbikes, all trendy with their knock off Converse All Stars go through a red light. They are pulled aside made to get off their bikes. There are now two cops and one goes to single guy and tries to take his keys. He is defiant and refuses. This is all happening in front of us, Dave and avert our eyes so as to not appear like we’re doing what we’re doing and watching the whole thing. The bike has two guys and a small baby. All are made to get off our bikes. The cop is giving them a serious dressing down, looking like he’s making a point of it. The locals are starting to gather around. We can only speculate, is this cop just a wanker or are these known hoodlums (or Buddlums, as Dave likes to call young Buddhist hoodlums). The one on the bike with the baby becomes apologetic and eventually they are let go and the crowd which has gathered disperses & everyone goes back to their days.

At this point, Dave points out that the two locals on the table to the right of us had been entertained by watching us watching all of the action – particularly during the cow episode. I turn to them and say ‘Like TV’. They nod their heads enthusiastically and burst out laughing. We give a mutual salute on our tea cups. The main police guy is now heading off and the show is over, so we pay our bill and move on.

That night when out foraging for food we noticed the street lights were out. Would it not be more important to have them controlling traffic after dark? Was the traffic light experiment deemed a failure or did the Buddlums have the last laugh? The next day we had back to the teashop to investigate. The lights were operating again, there was no Chief Wiggum, just his younger protege and from the lack of drama today, it seems that the town has gotten the hang of how traffic lights work.

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Stink Foot

We did not have an ambitious agenda today. We spent the whole day on Inle Lake yesterday seeing the sights. Beaver was introduced to the village life and had a close encounter with the formerly known as ‘jumping cats’ now the ‘slacking cats’ at the famous wooden monastery. Apparently training cats to jump through hoops is not considered ‘monk-ley’ so the government requested they stop. I see their point, but I would have though training cats who have usually have us trained to be at their beck and call would be worthy of some merit? But I digress. So today’s mission was simple, procure bikes with comfy seats (very important after really hard mountain bike seats) and head out to the Red Mountain Estate Winery to enjoy a leisurely afternoon of food & wine while enjoying the views of Inle Lake. The mission was accomplished and with wine purchases in tow we headed back to return our bikes.

We’re rounding the last corner to the street where our bike shop is. Here in Myanmar they drive on the right side (North American & continental Europe style), so all I had to do was make a right turn. Which I was in the process of doing when this guy on his motorbike who was making a left turn thought it would be a good idea to cross over to the wrong side of the road and put himself on a collision course with me. I braked, fortunately I was not going fast. However, the act of breaking sent my bike over to the right. Now the problem here is that in Myanmar, like other Asian countries, underneath the pavement or sidewalk (whatever you call it) which consists of concrete blocks resting on top of the two parallel rows of concrete that cover a ditch of disgusting sewer/rainwater/rubbish stagnant pool of water. I have a fear of this cesspool to the point where I won’t actually walk on the pavement over top of it. I take the calculated risk, deciding to brave moving traffic to walk on the road. The locals do the same, so I suspect they actually ‘know’ what is in that water.

So to the ‘right’ was the exposed corner of this disgusting concoction of stagnate water.  Thinking quickly, with my right hand I broke my fall on the corner of the pavement as my bike and I went tumbling down. With my left hand, seeing the inevitable, I quickly reached forward and grabbed Son of Beaver (SOB) that was in the bike’s front basket and threw him to the relative safety of the intersection. Fortunately only my right leg up to my mid calf went into this stagnant pool of death water (ok, maybe a little mellow dramatic, but you haven’t seen or smelled this water). Dave stops and yells, the guy on the bike looks horrified. I’m not hurt, thankfully, but I’m precariously stuck in this ditch – the ground is slippery and uneven. So in order to not fall completely in Dave & the motorbike driver need to pull me out in one quick motion. The motorbike driver, once realising that I was not injured and he was firmly in the wrong took off very quickly. I’m thinking ‘Go pray to your Buddha and make your offering to earn your merit for attempting to turn on the wrong side of the road you $%#!’.

I look to the left to see the beaver unscathed, Dave says ‘your instinct was correct – protect the beaver’. I look to left and see my faithful sigma water bottle in the trench of water. RIP trusty water bottle that has quenched my thirst around the world. Dave keeps asking me if I’m hurt, I assure him I’m ok but I’m feeling nauseous at the thought of what my flesh & flip flop has been immersed in. We’re only a block from the hotel so we go back and I ask for a  hose to get as much of this off me as quickly as possible.

To remedy the situation a shower, bordering on scalding was required. Every centimetre of my foot and leg scrubbed. Between toes. Got out the tea tree oil to disinfect. Ever so carefully used the manicure scissor to remove whatever nasty microbes might be lurking under the toenails. Just to be sure, antibiotic cream applied between the toes. A kettle of boiling water  & soap is used to scrub my contaminated flip flop.

Dave naturally wants to mark the occasion for the soundtrack known as life and settles on Frank Zappa’s ‘Stink Foot’.

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Rock & Roll ain’t noise pollution

Dave fits in well here. In fact he’s right at home here with his tendency to break into song to share what is going through his head. When traveling together, I’m  24/7 with means that Dave frequently invokes the Annexure A, Section 2a of the Marriage Agreement which dictates that if you have a song in your head your spouse must have it too. We’ve had Barry Manilow, some old song ‘Soldier Boy’ and last night a rousing rendition walking home from dinner of ‘Working for the Weekend’ which I’m told with great certainty stands the test of time. It is part of his charm, Dave knows the lyrics (and I don’t just mean the chorus – the whole damn song) across more genres and decades than you can imagine. I think it takes up more grey matter than Simpson’s dialogue – which is hard to believe I know.

The locals are also prone to breaking into song when the moment strikes. They love their music. We’ve heard men singing walking down the streets, young girls as they’re walking their buffalo down a mountain path, school kids en mass on the back of and on top of truck on the road, our guide trekking guide belting out ‘We are the Champions’ to no one in particular. Seems that singing a little tune is part of the national character. You will also hear ‘copy’ songs, Western sung in Burmese (not sure what the correct term is now that Burma is Myanmar). In Kalaw, we’re in a tea shop, enjoying the local sweet tea and munching on samosas when we hear the unmistakable schlocky Dan Hill melody.  We couldn’t resist filling it in, belting out the lyrics in English…’sometimes when we tough/the honesty is too much’…..Dave, of course, knew the whole damn song.

A few days ago on our first trek, we get picked up by Trevor, the guy who runs Green Trekking in Kalaw. Nice guy. We’re doing a half day trek as Dave’s ankle is still recovering from the nasty torn ligament episode. So we were being driven to our drop off spot. Our driver, was a total dude. Long hair, serious side burns, leather biker jacket, studded belt, multiple ear and face piercings. I assigned him the ‘the only rock star in the village’ moniker as Trevor told us about their band that was playing a gig the night before on NYE. ‘Lucky money’ is a good way to start the year, so they were ok about getting up early and meeting us for 8 am . We asked Trevor what kind of music his band plays. ‘Some copies (their word for covers) and original music’. What music do you like? ‘AC DC, I love them’. He’s goes on to tell us that while he doesn’t understand their lyrics, the music is ‘pure, like black and white… other music is for the ears, AC DC is for   the heart’. Probably a good thing that the not so subtleties of The Jack or Whole Lotta Rosie remain untranslated. We tell him that we live a few blocks away from Bon Scott’s (first AC DC lead singer for those of you who should be ashamed of yourself for not knowing) grave. His whole face lights up and he gets very excited that we now have a music connection.

Off we go on a lovely hike in the surrounding hills and enjoy a stop in a village for lunch. At the end of our trek, we had a pick up rendezvous. There he was, the only rock star in the village, all casually cool by the road side. This time not in a jeep, but an early 80s ‘Supreme Select’ sedan. We slide in, ready to leave the tranquil countryside behind. He slams on the gas and cranks the stereo. We’re flying down these windy hill side roads with what sounds like to us, Metallica blaring. Squealing tires, I felt like I was in a Beastie Boys video. Is this really Metallica? Yes, apparently it was a Myanmar Metallica ‘Copy’ band and the only rock star in the village let out a huge betel stained smile when we knew this music. We showed him the rock hand salute that accompanies head banging. He was impressed.  The whole situation was so absurdly surreal and really fun once you realised that the likelihood of careening off the road was very slim. We were trying hard not to laugh, as we didn’t want them to think we were laughing at them. When they dropped us off, much to my disappointment, no doughnuts were done. Because that would have been so totally awesome!

The next day we trekked for about 5 hours and got a pick up from  cave with about 2000 buddhas in it (they like here). No Metallica. No village rock star. It just wasn’t the same.

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