Valleys of agricultural activity spread out beside us as we walked.

Today was day three of our trek through the countryside from Kalaw to Inle Lake. We woke at 6 am to a beautiful sunrise in the home of a local village family along the way. Our cook prepared another fabulous breakfast and by 8 am we were walking again. Anna, Lukas, Fumi, and Hein and we are all friends by now, having spent so much time together. We have slept in the same room and eaten every meal together. We’ve learned each others’ personalities and can joke together with insider knowledge. It’s fun and comfortable.

Morning sky across the rooftops from our homestay.

Looking the other direction at the pink clouds of morning.

Today was the shortest hike, but with the highest elevation gain. We saw more stunning vistas and interacted with more generous, loving, local people. We laughed and talked and asked a hundred questions of each other.

When we first met our guide at A1 Trekking in Kalaw, we had the option of choosing a private tour. This would be me and Margaret traveling with our own guide. We chose to hike with others and I am so glad. The price drops for more people, but that was not our reason. We thought with two weeks of being together, day in day out, that it would be nice to interact with some new personalities. It was the perfect decision and we were lucky to join a group of good people.

Our guide, Hein, has been a resource for every question we have. He is constantly in good spirits and helps us avoid embarrassing circumstances. He said his smile solves all difficulty, based on his four years’ experience trekking.  I began referring to that as his super power. Hein smiles and we are all immediately ready to comply with any request.

A man carries a single bamboo pole. I wish I had been better positioned to show the entire pole. It was enormous and must have been difficult to carry.

Small boy entertaining himself while his mother worked in the field.

A bike loaded down with goods.

Our view near the highest point of our trek.

These women were selling crafts near the fee station. We all had to pay a $10 fee to enter the Inle Lake region.

Entering a bamboo forest.

Some of our cook’s incredible creations in fruit, for our last lunch together.

The whole gang! Left to right: Cook (can’t remember his name, gah!), Lukas, Anna, Hein, me, Margaret, Fumi.

At long last, but also too soon, our trek was over and we had to say goodbye to Hein and our cook, who traveled with us the entire way. They handed us over to a boat man on the shores of Inle Lake. We had left our heaviest luggage with A1 the day we left, and only carried what we would need for three days. Our luggage was on the boat when we arrived. We climbed into a long, narrow boat and I spoke up and asked that Fumi sit in front. He is an artist with his photography; making more of the sights with his camera than any of us could. I wanted him to have an unmarred view because he had promised to share photos later.

The five of us had three different destinations. We traveled north to drop Anna and Lukas off at their homestay first. A homestay is like Air BnB. The boatman took us through the shore communities to their homestay. They were staying with a local family.

The journey was through a community entirely on the water. Crops of beans, squash, lotus, and many other things we couldn’t identify were grown on the shores of the lake. Houses and workshops were on stilts, and everyone travels by boat. There were restaurants, pagodas, cultural sites, and homes, all on stilts above the water. I think this is the first time I have ever seen such a community. It is fascinating to me. Rather than try to describe it, I’ll include a bunch of photos and let you see it.

Making our way through the channels between crops in Inle Lake.

This is what the view looked like from where I sat in the back of the boat.

Heading under a bridge.

Our boatman.

Woman working the crops. Here I am guessing they mostly harvested lotus root.

Convenience store on the water – so funny!

Other boats blasted past us on a water highway.

I like the yellow windows.

I also love buildings that are falling down.

I still can’t believe all these places are built on stilts.

What seemed like neighborhoods cluster along the shores of the lake.

After our goodbyes to Anna and Lukas, we took a long, long ride south to our stop, Inle Resort and Spa, where we had to say goodbye to Fumi. It was unexpectedly sad, to leave the boat and leave our connection with our new friend. When Margaret and I stepped out of the boat, it brought home the realization that our friends were all gone and we were on our own again.

Our boat pulled up to Inle Resort and it was a whole new world. Our luggage was carried for us, and we were greeted with hot towels and juice. Our room is exquisite. The toilet is indoors AND you can sit on it instead of squatting. Yay!!! There is a shower with our first hot water in three days. Hell, our first non-ice water in three days.

The dock up to our resort hotel.

The dock from the other direction.

Me, sunburned, bathed, and really happy not to have to hike anymore. Oh, look: I’m blogging. Always thinking of you guys.

Sunset across Inle Lake.

Sunrise reflects off the home of the village Chief.

We woke at 6am in the Chief’s home after a good night’s sleep to a lovely dawn sky. As anticipated, it was cold cold cold that morning. After the ice-baths in the cistern the evening before, I assumed the nights must get very cold to keep the water at that temperature despite the consistent hot days.

Outside at the table in front of the house, we sat and mixed up our coffees. In two weeks in the country, I didn’t see brewed coffee offered anywhere in Myanmar. Nestle instant coffee packets were proffered everywhere we went. At the outdoor table in the frosty air were bowls with packets of coffee, packets of instant creamer, and packets of sweetener. *sigh* But it was around 30 degrees and all those packets came with a thermos of hot water, so we considered ourselves fortunate.

By 8am we said goodbye to the family and walked out into the red dirt streets of Ywar Pu. Today we walked 26 km, continuing through the lands of the Dannu people and then into Yaung Yoe country.

A group of young women heading for the fields. The silver cans are their lunchboxes.

A man and his beast.

Terraced rice paddies

We walked through low mountains and valleys. It’s agricultural country, and the activities we witnessed were in support of the economy there. Field stubble was being burned, as well as slash and burn activities to clear more land. It made the skies hazy but we rarely smelled the smoke because we didn’t come close to the active burning. Most of the cattle and oxen were tied to trees singly or in pairs, and were clearly used to pull carts or to plow. Occasionally there were more cattle in a field, so I could see there were at least a few ranches.

Though we had seen it the day before, I am still impressed with the terraced hillsides of rice paddies. We were in-between seasons and did not see any rice still growing. Everything had been harvested, the dirt was dry and hard, and often cattle were out grazing on what was left of the rice plants before it was burned. We also saw chilies and ginger harvested. The chilies would be in great heaps in the shade beneath a house (houses and storage buildings were often two story, with the living quarters above and storage beneath). Ginger was spread out on tarps beside the fields, drying in the sun. Crops are harvested by hand, and though it is late in the season, we saw people all day long in the fields, still bringing in the last of the crops.

Workers harvesting ginger, most likely.

The baby had been sleeping in the shade while its mother worked, but we must have disturbed it. The baby cried and cried until Momma laughed and went to soothe it.

I didn’t see any parents around, just these kids watching us walk by.

A huge, beautiful heap of chilies.

Remember the blisters I developed on my first day in Yangon? No problem! I had protected my feet in every way I could in the few days before this trip, and now on day two of my hike, they still felt fine. I definitely could still feel the blisters, since they were there between my toes (from the flip flops) and on my heels, but in my hiking shoes it was manageable and I didn’t give them a thought. I had, however, begun to sport a sunburn on my face and after the fact remembered to start using the sunscreen I had in my pack. Ha ha. I’ll never ever learn about the sun. I just love heat and sun so much, I can never remember that it’s supposed to be dangerous.

At our morning break we stopped for tea in a big open hut with an older woman on one side weaving cloth. She had a stack of completed scarves and bags beside her. Much of it was garish lime green and orange and cobalt blue, but I found a subtler and tasteful weave of white, black, gold, and purple. The scarf cost me 4000 Kyats – exactly $3. If I had more cash on me I would have paid her more for the lovely scarf woven by hand by a lovely country woman.

This woman weaved stacks of lovely scarves.

She graciously posed for a photo.

Our lunch stop couldn’t have come soon enough. It was hot and there was no getting around it. By noon it was 96 degrees and we were hiking in a lot of direct sunlight. We literally dropped to the floor in the large village home, half of us going prone right away after gulping warm water from our packs. People at the house sold us liter bottles of water all around, and we gulped at those too. Hein came in at one point to check on us, and immediately asked Fumi to change his position. Not knowing the customs, he had accidentally laid down with his feet pointed at the shrine to Buddha – very disrespectful.

Hein allowed us a very long stop. I wondered why we had to get up so blasted early if we had a 2 ½ hour lunch stop. After our brilliant cook prepared another delicious multi-course meal, we were offered the opportunity to go explore the town as we had yesterday. Every one of us stayed put and either rested or fell clean asleep. But I had to trust the Company. A1 Trekking had been around for years and was likely well-beyond a learning curve. The long rest did me so much good.

Our wonderful cook, hard at work in the kitchen.

Two courses from our amazing lunch.

The incorrigible Hein.

A boy in the village where we stopped for lunch.

Cattle pulling carts were a common sight.

Boys rolling tires with sticks.

Kids twirling and giggling and falling down

Off we went again, into the sun, over the hills, past the water buffalo. At our afternoon snack stop we finally came close to one of the fires. I heard a rushing, snapping sound in the distance and asked Hein what it was. He didn’t hear it. We sat down on the grass to rest in the shade of a tree, and everyone’s ears adjusted to the sound of our chosen spot. Chatter died down. And Margaret popped up to her feet! “Hein, what is that sound?” she pressed. He listened and finally heard it, “oh, that’s fire.” Typical, easy-going Hein. Margaret’s ears tuned in while I slowly got used to it and tuned it out. She periodically walked out away from our tree to watch the fire burn.

Margaret was still triggered by recent memories of having to run for her life from wildfire, and I didn’t grudge her a moment of that worry. While house-sitting for a friend in northern California last fall she was awake by coincidence in the night and glanced out a window to see flames on the hills, moving toward the homes! She only had time to grab her keys and her purse and run. From the car she called another friend nearby and woke him up. He did not have a car so she drove through the thickening smoke to pick him up. She called another neighbor who was already awake and told them to call everyone they knew. In an unknown neighborhood, in the smoke, in the middle of the night, chased by fire, she and her friend got away to her house, which for that night was safe. The home she was house-sitting burned to the ground. Whoah. In fact, the whole reason she is on vacation at the moment is because the owners of the ruined home are staying in her home (Margaret rents her house frequently on Air BnB).

Mud steps

Bamboo forest

We walked into a more forested section that provided some shade and saw our first bamboo forests of the trip. Hein took us past a courtyard of extremely derelict pagodas. There was a single shiny gold pagoda among them, but most were ancient and crumbling. I was eager to wander through them, as I am always drawn to the ancient stuff and less excited about the sparkly gold paint. Call it the anthropologist in me. Hein explained that this site was going to be demolished and brand new pagodas built. He said that upset him because people would come and steal the relics. I asked what the relics were, and he said they are often gold and jewels. I asked a few questions but wasn’t exactly clear on the cause and effect of the future crimes. He discussed the pagodas in the moment as though he assumed the relics were inside, but he talked as though the dismantling of them would result in theft. I didn’t understand whether he thought the workers would be the thieves. Hein took me to a particularly decrepit pagoda and showed me the section of bricks that showed where the relic had been placed – I could easily see the area outlined. Have you seen an old brick building where a hole that was previously a window has been subsequently bricked in? It looked like that. Only, this was a hundred years old and falling apart. I could have pulled the bricks out with my fingers. I wondered why the thieves wouldn’t have done their work now, before the workers showed up. But I am sure additional information was lost due to my inability to understand fluent Burmese.

Crumbing pagodas… and one shiny one!

I loved the tree growing from the umbrella on this one.

Up close they are so beautiful. It pains me to think this thing of beauty will be torn down and replaced with a shiny gold one.

We entered the town of Pattu Pauk and came across a monastery. We had passed several monasteries on our trip and I asked Hein if they were abandoned. They never had a soul about. Hein explained that the monks go out into the communities and do good works and collect donations during the day, but sleep there every night. I had overheard him talking the day before with Anna and Lukas about being both Buddhist and Muslim. His father was Muslim, and his mother was Buddhist, and each of the children in the family had chosen which religion they preferred and had the family’s support. Hein said that he had chosen to be Muslim, but had not given up the Buddhist practices taught to him by his mother. So he laughed and said he was both, since he observed both whenever he could. Anyway, Hein expressed his disgust with monks that he called “fake monks.” In explanation, he used percentages, saying that 85% of monks were fake monks and of those left only 5% of those were truly following the religion devoutly. I asked him to explain more. He said that most people joined the monastic life “because it’s easier. You don’t have to work, you don’t have to have a skill. You can do nothing and still have a place to sleep and food to eat.” He said those people did the bare minimum to escape scrutiny, and lived off donations.

Hein brought up the Rohingya. NONE of us tourists were about to be the first one to speak the word. I swear, before this trip, Myanmar was in my BBC podcast Every. Single. Day. For the heinous crimes of genocide – whole villages burned and the Muslim Rohingya people slaughtered by the Christian military – and leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s adamant denial that anything unpleasant is happening in her country. An outsider listening to the news gets the picture real quick that Myanmar’s military is NOT a group you want to interact with. Since we had been here, we had seen nothing but peaceful, happy people and not so much as a glimpse of military personnel. And here is Hein, laughing and saying out loud that he is Muslim! Hein just shrugged and said he didn’t really know what was going on with the oppressed people of Rakine State. It’s never on the news and no one talks about it. He said he had heard much more about it from his tour groups.

Not an abandoned monastery.

Hein talks to Fumi, Lukas, and Anna beside the monastery’s bell.

Pattu Pauk was our destination for the evening, so we only had a few steps to go beyond the monastery to find our home for the night. But before we got there, we got distracted by a group of women sitting together on blankets in the street doing some kind of work. We asked Hein if it would be ok with the women if we got close and watched them, and he said it would be fine. They were so beautiful, and seemed to be having so much fun, we had a hard time leaving them. In fact, the owner of the home we would be sleeping in came trotting down the street, asking Hein where we were going – concerned that his houseful of renters might change plans at the last minute. Hein assured him that we would be coming, but we wanted to watch the sight in the street. They were separating the white fluffy parts of popped corn from the hard shells and seeds. It was wedding preparations, which must have explained the buoyant atmosphere among them. I didn’t ask, but the popcorn could be for throwing at the newlyweds.

Women working with popcorn in the village.

An irresistible smile.

They were so fun to watch, chattering and laughing while they worked.

One woman empties her popcorn into the bag.

Margaret recorded them, then showed them the video.

The owner of the home was happy to have us stay.

Tonight I had had enough of the sun, sweat, and red dirt. The set-up at both our homestays is this: cistern in the back yard full of ice water, empty pan floating in ice water, platform of boards beside cistern. You pull up the curtain, so everything from your shoulders down is covered (ok, I’m just hoping that everything from my shoulders down was hidden from the passersby…), then reach over and fill the pan with water and dump it over yourself, trying to keep your whoops of frozen astonishment to a minimum. Grab a bar of soap, lather up to the best of your ability, then pour several more pans of ice water onto your body to try and wash off the soap. Then if you are me, grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and dump another pan of water onto your head. I did it! I washed my hair. The others cheered and clapped when I arrived at the outdoor table with wet hair. And well they should have.

The sun sets at the end of a long and wonderful day.

24-hour tea shop in Kalaw

The overnight bus from Yangon (craziest bus station ever) was due to arrive in Kalaw at 4:30 am. It was late and arrived at 5:30 am. I was grateful.

I mean, I wasn’t exactly sleeping, but at least it was dark and the intent was to sleep. My seat was in the back of the bus and all the luggage that didn’t fit underneath was jammed behind my seat so I couldn’t recline. And the air conditioning was blasting. I mean, full-on blasting cold air. What the heck? And the little air control thingies over my head were broken, so I was in the wind for about two hours till I found an empty plastic bag and shoved it into the hole. And the road was so rough – the worst in our entire trip. Margaret said she literally caught air on at least one bump. Maybe the worst bus trip of my life.

Despite all that, I actually think I slept a couple of hours. I had thought enough to bring my rabbit-soft wool scarf, and with that, added to the little blanket provided by the bus company, I managed to cover up completely. And we both used earplugs. That way I was a bit shielded from the light and noise and cold.

But at 5:30 we all had to disembark. Margaret had heard from the tour company that there was a 24-hour tea house nearby, and that we should wait there for someone to meet us. It was still dark and cold out, and we had a long wait.

For the next two hours I peeped through a window into a world of twenty-somethings engaging in devil-may-care life of travel around the world on $5 day. Margaret and I walked up the steps into a small room, floor and walls covered in white and blue linoleum, and lit – painfully – with fluorescent lighting. The room had three sides and the fourth was a half-wall and open air. And it was cold. There were a few low tables and 30 tiny plastic stools and heaped all over the place were young, beautiful travelers and their luggage. A vivacious redhead from Croatia caught our attention with her chatter, next to us two slender Italian women were trying to sleep on the floor (people stepped over them without blinking). There was a New Zealander, a Czech, Frenchmen, all crammed together drinking very bad instant coffee and smoking cigarettes. For a moment I was in Michener’s novel The Drifters, with all its young beautiful people traveling around the world with no specific plan beyond the day’s hopes and dreams. We were all meeting guides for treks, and we compared names of companies and how many days we would be out.

Guide from A1 Trekking carries our luggage from the tea shop to the company’s office in Kalaw.

My seat was facing into the room, and when I got up after a while and went out to pay for our wretched coffees, I was startled to see the pale blue dawn. Soon after, a person met us and led us to A1 Trekking in town, where we checked in and were immediately taken to an Indian restaurant across the street for our first meal with the company.

After breakfast we were told there was still time before departure, and that a market was setting up in the center of town we could explore while we waited. So we explored.

I am grateful that Margaret loves markets as much as I do. Who can resist the colours and textures and smells and sounds?

These fresh veggies trigger an instinct in me to want to buy them all and eat, eat, eat.

This woman twisted leaves into a wand to make carrying the coconuts easier.

Margaret (hands clasped in the chilly morning air) at the market in Kalaw.

Dried fish in heaps.

Pasta, beans, grains, and soup starters.

Bananas and bananas. The market in Kalaw was one of the best we saw during the whole trip. (Trust me I left out a ton of photos.)

We returned to A1 and it was time to go. We met our fellow travelers, Fumi from Japan and Lukas and Anna from Austria. There were just 5 of us, with our guide Hein, who grew up in Kalaw, and the cook. Some of the other companies take 15 people, we spotted one group later that looked like it could have been 18 people. A-1 has a policy of never more than six, to ensure a quality experience for each person. We walked out of town and directly onto a trail.

For the next three days we walked. That day to Hin Kha Gone and Myin Taik villages, through areas with the Paulaung and Dannu people.

Dried up terraces for rice paddies. Hein said they only have one season for rice per year because it gets so dry.

Left to right: Margaret, Anna, Lukas, Hein

While still in the forest we came upon a man herding cattle.

We stopped for a break here at the reservoir.

During our food breaks, Hein handed out a variety of local things for us to try. This fruit was pretty good. I don’t remember what it was called.

The view from our lunch stop.

Unused to walking so much, I was grateful when it was lunch time. We had a cook that traveled along with us, and damned if I can remember his name. But this young man made the most delicious foods and fed us very well, three meals a day, while we were out trekking. While he cooked, we explored the site.

The shop at our lunch stop. What you see here was pretty much the entire stock. Those “water” and “liquor” bottles you see on the left are petrol for sale.

My favourite toilet of the entire trip!! Everyone in the country had outhouses, and this one had an unparalleled view.

We could see a pagoda in the distance.

Hein encouraged us to walk over to the pagoda and monastery during our lunch stop, and down to the village below if we wanted to. And we did.

The village below the pagoda.

Me with some pretty obliging kids.

Off we went and finished up with some serious hiking. At one point we walked along train tracks, which is pretty hard if your natural gait doesn’t match the frequency of the supports beneath the rails. Lukas and I fell back, but it did allow me some shots of the others.

The others gain ground as I struggle with the awkwardness of walking on train tracks.

More lovely rice paddy terraces.

Work truck rumbles along the red dirt road.

Cute little house along the way.

Finally we reached our destination for the night, Ywar Pu village. We were surprised to find out that we were staying in the home of the village chief. The family stayed nearby, but gave up their beds for us that night. Our fabulous cook went to work and we took our chances bathing in the icy cold water of the family’s cistern. Then we walked around the property and the town till it was time to eat. The families contract with the tour companies, and get about $5 per night per person. They also sell water and Myanmar beer and… well… we were hot and tired and beer was just the thing! They probably earn as much selling drinks as they do on rent.

This was not where we stayed, but an example of a typical home in Ywar Pu village.

Our beds. You do not wear your shoes into this room. Each home we visited has a shrine like this.

Our cook in the kitchen, getting the flames hot for our dinner.

Catchment pool to the right, cistern (slightly out of sight behind the fence) to the left.

One of the family’s three pigs poses for my camera.

I had inexplicably slept poorly at the Golden Sunrise Hotel, waking up at 2:30 am and not able to sleep again. The following night I was on a freezing cold bumpy bus ride all night long. Trust me when I say this night in Ywar Pu, under all those blankets, I slept like a rock.

 

Trucks with narrow seats are nearly the only traffic on the mountain road.

The lobby of the Golden Sunrise Hotel was dark and silent at 5:30 am, but as promised, our boxed breakfast was there waiting for us on the counter. So kind of them. Fried egg sandwiches and bananas. I whooped to Margaret, “They remembered us!” and accidentally woke the attendant who was sleeping in the lobby in a little tent. Ooops. Poor kid. We left everything in our rooms because we expected to return well before check out time. It was dark out and in the lovely coolness we made the easy walk into town and quickly found the truck station because that’s where all the activity and light was!

In a large warehouse-type building, tall trucks were parked beside metal staircases. We picked one at random and walked up the stairs and were quickly ushered into seats. The entire bed of each truck is filled with about six narrow rows of metal benches. People cram themselves in. The orchestrators hollered at Margaret and I multiple times to squoosh down, but it was hard. The seat in front was too close to sit with knees forward. Literally impossible for us to sit normally. My solution was to tip my knees down toward the floor, so I could face front. Margaret had her knees to the side. We are not big people, but they wanted us to minimize our space. A woman in front of us said “six,” and we finally figured out that they wanted six people in each row. Ours only had five. I suspect our difficulty condensing had more to do with a rather large grandmother seated next to me than Margaret and I, but since we were the ones at the end, we were the ones getting hollered at.

We leaned and pulled our elbows in and became very close to one another, and finally had squashed ourselves enough to cram one more person in our row. Then we handed our money (2000 kyats/$1.50) over to the orchestrator. We were off!

I quickly became grateful for being wedged in there like sardines. There were no seatbelts, obviously, and the truck began hurtling up the narrow paved road to the top of the mountain where we would find the Golden Rock. We were told the ride was a half hour, but it felt more like an hour because it was a real adventure. I am convinced that the reason no one bounced out was because we were packed so tightly. Grandma and I became friends out of necessity. The whole population in the back of the truck would say “whoah!” in unison, and grab onto each other to stay upright as we careened around hairpin corners and blasted ever faster toward the top.

We were still in the dark, and wind blew through our hair. Margaret and I were in sarongs (the clothing in Burmese is called longyi) and T-shirts, but all the locals had on down coats and hats and mittens. It was possibly as chilly as 70 degrees. About halfway up the mountain the sky began to lighten, and the sun was clearly in mind to rise by the time we reached the top.

Entrance to the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo is too hard for me to say) is jammed with people.

Off the truck, we had a rather long walk through a pop-up market, designed to cater to tourists. Everyone there was a tourist, even the monks, to some degree. There were many many monks. Everyone removed their shoes early on and we carried them for the rest of our time there. We passed hundreds of shops selling either food or things to dedicate to Buddha.

The walkway to the top is bound by many shops selling things, particularly breakfast.

The sunrise views of the valley were lovely.

Sunrise beat us to the rock, but not by much and we did capture a stunning dawn glow on the Golden Rock. It seemed liked everyone up there was in a festival mood. Likely the crazy truck ride contributed to that. It was like an amusement park ride! Pilgrims can also walk to the top, and I hear it’s a lovely walk. Now that I have experienced the trucks, however, I’m glad we did that instead. I walk every day, but I’ve only had one truck ride like that in my life.

On the way up we were stopped by some officials who were not stopping anyone else. We obligingly walked into the building that had large posters in English stating that we had to pay a “Foreigners fee” of 10,000 kyats. We signed our names in a book and were handed badges to hang around our necks. M and I decided: why not? They are smart to capitalize on tourism in this way.

Our first view of the Golden Rock from a distance.

In front of the rock, I proudly show off my expensive”Foreigner” badge.

Women are not allowed to approach the rock itself. Men will purchase gold foil pieces and queue up. When it’s their turn to touch the rock, they say prayers and press the gold foil to the rock. Or, that is what appeared to be going on as I stood at a distance and watched. Legend has it that when locals were concerned that the rock would fall, the Buddha gifted three of his own hairs which were used to prop up the rock. That is why this is a sacred and holy place. I wondered if each man who pressed his fingers against the rock worried that he would be the unfortunate one to push the rock off its precarious balance.

Men applying gold leaf pieces to the rock.

We wandered across the top of the hill, stopping to take photos for ourselves, for others, and regularly being asked by locals if they could have their photo taken with us. I am still surprised by this behavior; how frequently a person’s gaze will lazily drift past the crowd, notice us, and then come alight with delight and a dazzling grin. They wave, giggle, shout “mingalaba” and “hello.” I am also, disturbingly, getting too used to this behavior, and gradually coming to expect it. In anticipation of adoring smiles and waves, sometimes I’ll wave first. On occasion, I get a blank stare in return, with a face that says “Who are you, lady?” And then I feel like an idiot.

In no time we had circled the complex and were ready to return to the madness of the trucks. We again joined a great group of all locals, and as with the morning crew, they all seemed to be enamored with us Westerners. While we waited for the truck to fill up (six to each row!!), many selfies occurred and everyone practiced saying “hello” in each other’s language. Children climbed the staircases to attempt to sell us cheap worthless crap while we waited. Two items were offered by every child on the whole mountain: fake spectacles made of bamboo, and fake unrealistic machine guns. I was rather puzzled that machine guns were so popular at a holy site – a Buddhist holy site no less. People bought way more guns than glasses.

Workmen carry cement to the top for construction.

Pathside food seller can offer an unparalleled view. Just don’t lean too far while you’re looking.

These shy ladies were offering breakfast, and agreed to have their photo taken.

Beautiful pair. We saw some fun fashion on the Burmese: dyed hair, tattoos, even ear plugs.

Carrying trays of food up the hill.

This boy is selling dried beans.

We saw this a couple of times: monks in a row, collecting alms.

The trip down was even crazier! This time gravity assisted and we moved as though we had been shot from a cannon. The truck may have gone up on two wheels at times, while screeching around the switchbacks headed back down. Every so often we would meet a truck coming up the mountain, and both drivers would be forced to slam on the brakes and move to the side.

Waiting for our truck to fill up before we headed back down.

Fake guns for sale, with “love” written onto the stock.

One of the turns on our way down the hill.

Our truck pulled over and we were asked to pay for our trip. Then we waited another 15 minutes while kids sold guns and glasses.

A little shop on the way back to Kin Pun.

All we had left on the agenda for the day was to check out of our hotel, and get a bus back to Yangon in time to catch our night bus that was leaving the Yangon bus station at 6:00 pm. After disentangling ourselves from the mass of humanity on the truck, and before heading back to the Golden Sunrise Hotel, we found someone who could sell us a bus ticket. This was accomplished by telling the woman who ran a restaurant that we wanted a bus. She walked out into the street and started hollering. A kid heard it and took off running. In five minutes, a young man in a white shirt with a name tag and a clipboard came running up and told us all we needed to know about buying a bus ticket. Awesome! 😊

We could take the 9am, 11am, or 1pm bus back to Yangon. We decided to spend our time waiting at our cool, clean, lovely hotel rather than at that crazy bus station we had already spent 3 hours at yesterday. So we bought a ticket for 1pm and then went to the hotel and lounged a bit. We came back to the restaurant by noon and bought lunch there, to pay a debt of gratitude for the woman who helped us get in contact with the bus man.

We waited at that restaurant because that’s where the bus kept stopping to drop people off. But at about 12:55, there was still no bus. A young man in a white shirt came up to us, “Ok, come with me.” He explained that the bus departure was actually on a different street, and he would show us the way. So we grabbed our gear and followed him.

This bus trip was fraught with complications. The entire trip should have taken 4 hours, dropping us at the crazy bus station at 5pm. After about one hour, the bus pulled over at the side of the highway near some tiny huts. No announcement. We sat there, looking around, asking the other people on the bus if they knew what was going on. Somehow they had obtained additional information. “I think we are supposed to change buses,” they said. We looked out the window, and sure enough, the bus driver and attendant were dragging luggage out of the bus and lining it up in the red dirt. We scooped up our stuff and climbed out and grabbed our luggage. There was a bus parked in front of us on the highway, and we all climbed onto it. This bus already had people on it, but luckily we all fit.

We went another hour, then – again with no announcement – the bus turned off the highway in a tiny little town, onto a narrow dirt road and parked beside a large building. There were a couple of men sitting beside the building on plastic chairs in the sun. Neither of them stirred. We remained parked there for quite awhile. Twenty minutes maybe. Margaret spotted some oil drums beside the building and guessed that it could be a gas or maintenance stop. Finally, with no warning, the driver and attendant got back on, and began to turn the bus around.

There was a problem. The bus couldn’t go in reverse. Multiple attempts by the driver to pull forward a little, then back up, failed. The men sitting in the sun got up and walked over to watch. A tool bag was produced. More attempts.

We were getting nervous because we were way behind schedule and still needed to catch the 6pm bus. Luckily we had given ourselves a buffer, and as long as we started moving again, soon, we would make it.

The bus attendant came onto the bus and headed down the aisle to where Margaret and I were sitting, carrying a wrench. He walked all the way to the very back, right next to Margaret, and opened up a panel in the floor that seemed to open to the dirt below us – I couldn’t really see. Margaret hid her face rather than watch the great hole next to her. The assistant guy held his wrench in there and hollered at the driver, who attempted reverse gear again and finally did it! Yay! We were off again.

With 40 minutes till 6 pm, we hit rush hour traffic in Yangon, and things came to a stop. We alternately stopped and crawled all the way to the bus station. The bus arrival section was about a mile from the bus departure section where we needed to go, but we did not know that. At 5:55 we leapt off the bus, grabbed our luggage and began trotting toward the congested, confusing bus station we had been at the day before. The place is really enormous. We had no idea how big it was yesterday: like it’s own little bus station city. We’d run a block, say the name of the bus company we wanted, a person would point, we’d run some more.

Through alleys, past stray dogs, vendors, children, shops, and all of this was part of the bus station. It was hot. We were sure we were going to miss our bus.

Finally, finally, we found JJ Tours, and there was no bus parked in front. The young man at the counter spotted us and knew who we were immediately. “The bus is gone! You can’t take it, I’m sorry! Why didn’t you call? I would have held the bus for you. Why didn’t you call? I didn’t know you were coming. I called you but you didn’t answer. I’m so sorry.” We tried to explain about our phones not working in another country….but there really wasn’t a point. He told us there was another bus that left at 7pm. He walked us to the other bus station and helped us buy a ticket.

The other thing we worried about was meeting our guide on time the next morning. The trek was supposed to start at 8:30 am, and our original bus was supposed to arrive at 8:00. Now what would we do? But the new bus had a different schedule somehow, and planned to arrive at 4:30 am. We dropped into our seats, heads spinning though relieved, and tried to get some rest.

The Golden Rock from a distance.

Our day was primarily travel. We are aimed for the Golden Rock, or Kyaikityo Pagoda, well outside of Yangon. We are planning a trip up the mountain to see the balanced rock at sunrise. In the meantime, our goal was simply to get here. From what I read prior to the trip, there is little else to do out here aside from visit the rock.

From the hostel this morning, we walked 10 minutes to a travel agency and bought bus tickets for the day. To get there we passed through a marvelous market just steps from the hostel that we had no idea was there. I just LOVE these markets. They are so crammed with activity. People, food, rickshaws, trucks, and dogs, all jumbled together in this kind and warm environment where everyone is looking out for each other and ready to laugh together in a shared experience. I believe this loving community must be how no one dies amidst the ruckus.

Unlike my previous experience of east Asia, in Japan, here people stare directly at you and fully engage in acknowledging your presence on the street. A truck honks from behind, one of us yelps in surprise, and three or four people nearby laugh with us. A woman carrying a large tray of fried shrimp and spinach cakes tells me she likes my sarong. Her face is covered in the yellowish-white Thanaka lotion that most women and many men wear. Children, beautiful beautiful children – I can’t even express how beautiful they are to me with their dark hair and enormous eyes and trusting, open stares – wave and smile. These people are loving toward each other, often laughing, often with their arms around each other: men, women, adults, children, makes no difference. I have relaxed my own careful observance of others’ personal bubbles and reach out and touch people when I speak to them here, the same way I would with my friends at home. Only these are strangers, and they are completely comfortable with physical closeness.

Woman prepares betel leaf with Areca nut.

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Betel nut expectorant splashed on the road.

I haven’t mentioned the betel leaf that we see constantly. I have read about it often enough that when I saw it for the first time, I guessed right. Among the vendors of toys and food is always someone with a tray of leaves. They lay out the leaves, spread a thick white creamy liquid across them, sprinkle some kind of spice, then drop some chopped crumbles of the Areca nut. The leaves are wrapped up into a little packet. I haven’t seen anyone put one in their mouth, but I assume the whole thing goes into the mouth. Betel nut is a mild stimulant, like tobacco, and people keep it in their mouths and spit out the red juice. People who chew it have bright red mouths and teeth. Sidewalks are stained with great red splashes. The walls in toilet stalls are stained with red. Nearly all of our taxi drivers have opened the door and spit during a pause in traffic.

After we purchased tickets, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts at the hostel and walked out to the main road. We knew we were headed north, so we crossed the street to catch a taxi northbound vs. southbound. Crossing streets here is always an adventure, but we are getting used to it. Rarely are there crosswalks, and always there is congestion. In Yangon there are so many large vehicles that it catches our attention. Large, like USA large, and not something I’m used to seeing outside of the US. Very few motorbikes or bicycles, and way more vehicles than the infrastructure is prepared for. It’s always bumper to bumper and painted lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule. Someone tired of waiting might pull out into the oncoming traffic lane if no one is coming, in order to pass several vehicles and then cut back into the proper lane when oncoming traffic shows up.

Anyway, crossing a road is an adventure because one must walk right into the street and make a path. Just wait for a bit of a space between cars and go. People tend to wait and cross in clusters (safety in numbers!). It’s best when the cars have come to a halt because of a light, or simply because of congestion. Then people walk with no fear at all, bicycles, women holding hands of toddlers, weaving in between vehicles to get through. At first it’s unnerving, but after only three days, I’m so relaxed about it. Just step right into moving traffic, and everything kind of flows around. No one gets concerned. And voila! Soon enough you’re on the other side.

A taxi pulled over immediately and we asked him to take us to the bus station. It’s supposed to be a two hour drive. This man got us there in an hour and 15 minutes. Margaret was having a heart attack and I finally told her to stop watching! Me, I was having so much fun. The driving is simply astounding, the way vehicles swerve and merge and slow and speed up. I was constantly delighted. Our driver took multiple shortcuts, such as through the University of Yangon campus, to get around stalled traffic.

This wins the prize for craziest bus station.

Market behind busses.

You can see Margaret in there, waiting for the bus.

Thus, we arrived at our bus station with over two hours to kill. This is the craziest bus station I have ever seen, and I’m guessing it will hold that top spot for years. It looks as though many bus companies all have their offices side by side in a big square, all facing the center. As we had already seen in Yangon, vendors set up their stalls anywhere people might walk, which is an excellent business plan you have to admit. People walk through, busses occasionally drive through, honking to warn the people to get out of the way. So imagine a giant “U” of shop fronts that belong to a menagerie of bus companies. Then imagine a bus parked in front of them all, making a smaller U. And out at the front of the busses are some vendors, but between the busses and the buildings is a regular market. There are kiosks set up, and walking vendors carrying their wares will thread their way through.

Even though I ate all of my breakfast at the hostel, I was hungry. I wandered around and bought some cookies at a small shop, then bought some more green mango with chili powder. Out here the chili powder is coarser and you can identify the chili seeds, unlike downtown where it really is just powder. Yesterday we had purchased some avocados on the train, and I put the leftover chili powder on the avocado, which was delicious. I ate some roasted peanuts. Finally I felt full.

Our bus took off at noon. Another nice thing about a super friendly country: they look after you. At one point a kid came up to Margaret and me and told us it was time to get on the bus. He took my bag and stowed it, then asked for our ticket, which I showed him (written in Burmese so the information it held was lost to me). The boy led us to our seats on the bus. I was oblivious the whole time, but this kid was not an employee, just an entrepreneur. He wanted a tip and Margaret was at least savvy enough to figure that out. She gave him a few hundred Kyats (which is mere coins in US dollars).

The plane ticket to get to Myanmar was expensive. But balancing that out is that everything is unbelievably inexpensive once you arrive. Our rooms are cheap, food is cheap, transportation is cheap. Each day Margaret and I settle up the day’s expenses. We are splitting costs, but often in the moment it makes sense for one or the other of us to pay for both, like a taxi ride. It inevitably arrives at something like this, “Ok, I owe you 2500 kyats, let’s call it $2.”

Kin Pun is small and clean, with mountains in the background!

The bus ride was comfortable and clean and not that adventurous other than vendors selling stuff during stops. It’s still a bit weird for me: a guy hawking boiled eggs, for example. He was going down the cramped bus aisle selling chicken eggs and quail eggs to people for a snack. At one point the bus stopped and everyone got off. We had to ask other tourists what was going on. “Lunch stop!” we were told by the Germans. “How was Yangon?” asks Simon, from Denmark. BTW, every tourist seems to speak English. It makes me embarrassed.

We arrived, and Margaret carried her backpacks while I dragged my bag (I am clearly not as cool as the other tourists) less than a mile to our hotel. The town of Kin Pun is small and clean with red dirt. It feels more like home than the big stinky city of Yangon.

The Golden Sunrise Hotel is gorgeous. Landscaped and classy, with no trash in sight. The staff is all fluent in English. This is more English than I’ve heard since I arrived. I’m feeling distinctly spoiled.

Our rooms are here, on the second floor.

View from my room.

Restaurant on the grounds

Entrance lit up at night.

We are going to meet in the lobby at 5:30 am to pick up a boxed breakfast and then we will walk into town and find the “truck station,” where we will get a ride up the mountain to the balanced rock in time for 6:30 am sunrise. It’s a lot of time, effort, and expense to see a rock. Margaret likened it to Mount Rushmore, which I think is apt. The attraction itself is amazing. But the time, effort, and expense to get there is significant. And once you’ve seen the display, there is nothing left but to go home.

Who am I to turn down a willing Valentine on Valentine’s Day?

I like what I did with yesterday’s theme: boiled it down to two highlights. Today I’ll do the same. While the day was long and filled with adventure, the two things we will remember the most are running after a train (and the 30 minute stop at a tiny town) and camel affection at the zoo.

The Circle Train in Yangon gets its name because the tracks circle the city, with a few little branches of tracks leading off from the circle. You can get on and off at any point, but if you choose to remain for the entire loop, it’s a three-hour journey. The draw of the train is that it is old (character!) and that you get a good look at the area. It costs a whopping 15 cents. We knew our hostel friends, S and A (the two guys who recommended Chinatown yesterday) were planning to ride the train today so we asked them at breakfast, and they graciously welcomed us along.

We found the train station without too much trouble, and settled down to wait for the right train. Rickety old trains passed through every few minutes. One of the local people waiting asked if we were taking the circle train and we said yes. As one train approached, the same person stood up to board the train and told us, while pointing, “circle train!” indicating that we should board it as well.

“This is it?” we asked, not sure if we had waited long enough for the right one. “Oh yes,” we were assured. We asked a couple of others, and got enthusiastic nods and smiles.

Ok, here’s one thing I’ve learned in Myanmar so far: the people nod and smile and say yes even when they have no idea what you’re talking about. So, the train slows down and the four of us get up, a little hesitantly. We asked a few more people “Circle train?” “Yes, yes,” we were assured. Someone spotted some Western-looking tourists getting off the train, and asked them. English was not their first language, but it seemed like they understood the question because they also smiled and nodded and said “yes!” So we came to the consensus that it was the correct train as the train was pulling away from the stop.

Obviously the next thing to do was start running!

Margaret and I had the best shoes. Holding our backpack and camera and water bottles to keep them from bouncing away, we ran and leapt onto the high steps. Friendly hands already on board reached down and pulled us up and into the train. I was SO grateful! With joy at having made it, we glanced down the car to find our companions. S had made it, but outside the train, we saw A still running, in his flip-flops, beside the train. He had tossed his water bottle on board, and ran to catch up with the doorway. He, too, had to leap toward the arms outstretched, and was pulled on board as the train continued gathering speed.

“In retrospect,” says A later, “That was probably not a smart thing to do. But I never ran to catch a moving train before!” He grinned and we all grinned, agreeing that it was a first for all of us, and that it was the best adventure of the day already, and only 9 am.

Every train stop was lined on both sides with vendors like these.

Commerce at another train stop.

This young man (his mother sits there at the side) begged his mother for money to buy me a treat.

This effervescent hoodlum jumped off the train each time it slowed for a stop. The train would pass him, and then when it began to move again, he would jump back on, then come back to our car.

A scene from the train

While on the train, I was having a great time. Like yesterday, we were treated like celebrities, with many people smiling and saying “Hello! Hi!” and waving at us. Aside from that, the scenery was a constant delight. The places we saw were often dirty, smelly, structurally unstable, and I loved it all. Trash everywhere, napping dogs, flies buzzing, multicolored fabrics on men and women. Vendors on the train walked through selling avocados, strawberries, fried potatoes, bottled water, eggs, sliced mango with a kind of chili powder. Smiles and smiles. I can’t help myself. I don’t know where I got this vibe on this particular trip, but I am happy and relaxed and everything I see makes my smile wider.

One boy took a shine to me beginning before boarding the train. He continued to stare once on the train. We shared a few moments during the trip, while watching things happen on and off the train, though we couldn’t communicate much without a language between us. He ran over to his mother at one point and begged some money off her. He then went to a woman creating meals from the goods piled on a great tray, balanced on her head, that she had carried into our car. She prepared a dish for him and he brought it directly to me. I have been reluctant to eat the food on the street here, sticking mainly with fresh fruits and vegetables. I am not judging the food, I am only worried that if I eat too locally, I’ll get sick. I was torn. The boy held the dish up to me and I wouldn’t take it. I could see the disappointment in his eyes and I felt so bad. I really wanted to taste it. Heck, I wanted to eat it all up. But I’ve been sick in another country and I wasn’t willing to take the risk. So, I took one bite. It was *delicious!* Sort of a savory salad type dish with crunchy garbanzos on it. I handed it back to the boy and he sadly began to eat it himself.

The next adventure was an hour later, when we realized the train had not curved around the circle, but continued due north. Not knowing what to do, we jumped off the train at a stop that turned out to be someplace called Industrial Zone, almost to Shwepyitha. It’s a tiny little community with dirt streets and simple homes and businesses. After talking with the person at the train station, S informed us that the train we left would go all the way to the end of the track, then come directly back, and it would be the next train to come through. We would just pick it up again and head back to Yangon!

None of us wanted to go the full 3 hours on the train in any case, so this actually worked out perfectly. We had a 30 minute break from the train, so we wandered the industrial zone town. The towns people treated us very well. When I went to purchase a cucumber from a woman at one shop, she wouldn’t let me pay. At one spot we watched boys playing some kind of sport with a hard ball bounced off their bare feet and heads, played roughly like volleyball. Our walk was shady and pleasant, and we had a chance to chat about each others’ lives.

Train station where we disembarked

S, A, and Margaret walking from the train station into town.

Dirt streets of the town.

Friendly smiles when they see we are foreigners.

A young man returns the ball with a head shot.

We got back on the train without having to chase it this time, and rode the hour back to Yangon. From there, we parted ways with A and S, who had been a whole lot of fun and the perfect partners for chasing a train.

The main Yangon train station was close to the Shangri-La hotel, so we went back there and sat in the air conditioning and had lunch and some refreshing Myanmar beer. Then we walked to the zoo. Conscious that we may get pagoda’d out by the end of this trip, we have already been scanning the maps for things other than pagodas to see.

The beak on this bird was tremendous.

We decided this one looked prehistoric.

Margaret and the deer check each other out.

The zoo, like the rest of the town, was rather run down and had piles of trash in all the unused areas. But it was a pretty good zoo for all that, if you can overlook the fact that it’s a zoo, and the animals mostly lived on dirt and concrete. We were lucky and it was feeding time for many of the animals. I saw more animal activity than I’m used to seeing at zoos. They had a nice variety of big and small critters, and I appreciated that most of them were from the region.

Beautiful hippos, up close and personal.

White Tiger eating chicken for lunch.

Visitors fed the elephants.

I just loved this camel.

The sun began to drop in the sky and it was time to head back to the hostel. We were totally exhausted and conversation was quiet as we made our way home. We made bus plans for the following day’s pagoda trip, and dropped to sleep.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

We walked a good portion of Yangon today, but the highlights were the Shwedagon Pagoda complex and the street vendors in Chinatown.

This morning after a lovely breakfast at Ten Mile Hotel, we took a cab into the city from the area around the airport. It was a long drive and I was grateful that we had not tried to come all that way last night after our flights, and rather found a room near the airport. We only managed to get into our beds by 1:30 am local time as it was.

Anyhow, now we have two nights at the Pickled Tea Hostel. It is very close to the Shwedagon Pagoda, and that was our first stop after checking in and unloading our bags. Margaret brought along a lightweight sarong to wrap around when it was pagoda time and otherwise wore a sort of tennis skirt. I decided to wear one of the sarongs that I brought, since it is heavy fabric and would be bulky to carry. I am not used to wearing sarongs, and while it was comfortable enough, seriously restricted my stride – that long skirt. And it was much more fabric than I needed, so it wrapped around twice and kept me toasty warm on this 90 degree day.

The road to our hostel.

Entrance to the pagoda. There are a few shrines on the complex built of mosaic mirrors, like the one on the right.

The mirror tiles kept fascinating me.

Yeah. No, seriously. I could not get enough of the mirror buildings.

A view of the many pointy tops surrounding the pagoda.

Again, shoe problems like last year. It’s hot so I’m not in my boots, and boots are practically all I wear at home. So I went with flip flops instead, but soon my feet were rubbed raw. Flip flops are not good for miles and miles of walking. So I stopped at a vendor’s shop and bought different sandals, that didn’t rub between my toes like the flip flops. But by the end of the day (we guessed we walked six miles or so), my feet have blisters from those too. So, despite the heat and the wardrobe of skirts, I am going to stick to hiking shoes. They won’t match my clothes but I’ll be able to walk. Wish me luck on the blisters healing somewhat before our three-day hike to Inle Lake coming up.

Green dude.

The Buddha

Burmese people are so excited to see us! They ask for photos with us.

Once we agree to have our photos taken with someone, others notice and come and get in line. Hilarious.

Ok! So what did we walk to, if we did so much walking?

First of all, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s a huge complex with multiple pagodas and tons of little shrines and some big shrines and statues and holy places and bells. Enormous place. We could have spent the entire day there if we had wanted to see every single Buddha statue and every piece of fascinating architecture. The main pagoda houses eight hairs from Siddhartha Buddha, along with relics from the previous three buddhas as well. Presently it is 326 feet high, and apparently grows a little bit more each time someone restores and re-guilds it.

We had to cover up our legs and remove shoes (and socks!) to enter the pagoda. Under the beating sun, we were quick learners, and I can now tell at a glance which tiles will scald bare feet, and which are better to walk on.

Lots of very hot tiles and no shade.

A look down at the entrance while we were up on top.

Brand new monks

Bang a gong

The architecture of the temples and shrines and pagodas is remarkable.

Love that deep red against the gold.

Here there be dragons. Omigosh, the detail. Click the image and look. I mean, for real, look at this artistry.

Then we walked into the center part of the city of Yangon. We stopped at several markets. The BoGyoke Market is a main attraction, so we visited there and were less than impressed after the fun markets in Santiago we visited last winter. Next to it was the “new market,” so we visited that one as well. Both were well-organized, serious places to shop. You could purchase calendars, rolls of fabric, eyeglasses, batteries, prescription drugs, bras, shoes. Sure, you could get anything there, and it was all under one roof, but …eh, we were bored. There was also a classy modern mall, that we went into, and it was no different from a mall in the states. We mostly went into that one for the air conditioning.

By this time we were suffering from heat and fatigue, so we went into the Shangri La, a high-end hotel and dropped into the bar for some cocktails and more air conditioning. To our surprise, other visitors at our same hostel came in a few minutes after we were settled. They had just come from chinatown and recommended it. So after our rest, we headed that direction.

Pigeons loaded the wires here, interested in the food below.

Some of the food looked so good it was hard to walk past without sampling.

Lanterns strung in the sky in Chinatown for New Year’s celebrations.

Crowded is maybe an understatement. Yes, that is a vehicle driving through.

Vegetables

Meat

Your choice of tasties. (Look at the little kid behind the vendor. Can you believe I missed that shot?!)

Not much capital investment required to get this small business up and running.

It was an excellent choice. The decorations are going up for Chinese New Year’s celebrations. The place was swarming, but I get the impression that it’s business as usual. Margaret and I wandered up and down narrow, canyon-like streets crammed with vendors until dusk. The food vendors were the most interesting.

Finally we walked our long walk home. We passed the Shwedagon pagoda again, this time lit up at night, but we photographed it from a distance since we were not going to pay the entrance fee again.

Fountain lit up at night.

Killing time in the Hong Kong airport.

Margaret and me in San Francisco

I just checked into my room in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) with my girlfriend Margaret. You’ll remember her from the trip to Chile last winter.

I’ve been traveling since yesterday, and I’m exhausted and it’s 1:35am Tuesday local time and 11:05am (what’s with the different minutes?) Monday back home and I’ll try to keep this short.

Margaret and I flew different flights on different airlines, so it was a delight to bump into her in the San Francisco airport! We had enough time to share some chatter and hugs and lunch and then we went our separate ways. She arrived in Yangon before I did, and sat on the other side of the glass, periodically waving at me while I stood in line for a half an hour to get through customs.

Saw a lot of this today. A lot a lot. One flight was over 15 hours long. Ugggggg

…but luckily modern planes have tons of media to help kill the time. I just love this feature that tells me where I am. And also, you can see I’m charging my phone at my seat. SO convenient! Also… what the heck… did my pilot go to sleep there for a few minutes, then correct course?

Our hotel is wonderful. It’s warm here but not miserable. I’ll certainly be able to sleep. And honestly. Sleep is the main thing on my mind. Our plan is to explore Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and then slowly make our way northward. I’ll fly home from Mandalay in a couple weeks. Margaret will be traveling for 90 days! I can hardly wait to see this country and bring you along with me!! I’ll blog when I can.

The approach to San Francisco early in my trip.

In a hub terminal of the Hong Kong airport.

Birthday berry tart with ice cream and a candle!

I celebrated for five days in a row this year. I think I deserve it. 😉

My birthday was Tuesday, but I took a few days off work and began the reveling on the Saturday before.

First up was an overdue visit to my friend Vladimir in St. Johns, a neighborhood of Portland. We went out walking and he steered me directly into the path of some scrumptious samosas at The Sudra. St. Johns is most famous for its green gothic suspension bridge, of which I did not take a decent photo here, but you get the idea. It is stunning, and after Vlad and I ate lunch, we continued our walk then crossed the bridge over and back in the sun.

I bid my friend adieu, then hopped into the Jeep and sped off northward to Seattle, to visit my brother Ian and his girlfriend Karen, for the weekend. Ian had smoked some pork and Karen prepared an array of sides like multi-coloured carrots with a glaze. When I arrived, dinner was just about ready and we chatted and drank wine for hours.

The St. Johns Bridge from near Vlad’s place.

Looking toward Portland from the St. Johns Bridge.

Looking toward the community of St. Johns from the bridge west of Portland.

A treehouse we passed on our way toward the bridge.

Sunlight on the bridge.

They put me up for the night, as always, in their guest bedroom that looks out toward the Space Needle, Seattle’s most famous landmark. I thought that something looked dreadfully wrong with the Needle. When typically it’s elegant legs arc into the sky supporting a perfect spaceship-shaped disc, it seemed decidedly chunky and awkward. I fretted about some ghastly renovation that left it possibly safer, but no longer artistic perfection. In the morning I looked out and saw with relief that the entire top of the Needle is enveloped in plywood scaffolding. Renovations, yes, but they have only just begun. The improved and (I assume) lovely Space Needle will be open in time for summertime tourists.

Sunday they took me to the Ballard Market, a place we hit every Sunday when I’m there, so I imagine they hit it every week they can. It’s a grocery store for my super-health-conscious relatives, who purchase meat directly from the ranchers, and vegetables directly from gardeners. Afterward, Karen introduced us to one of her favourite eateries, Eve Fremont, where we all decided on bison burgers!

Bison burgers all around.

Mushrooms at the Ballard Market.

Get a load of these boots!!

Karen studied for school while Ian and I talked, then she and I went shopping. I’ve been wanting black boots for over a year. I have beautiful brown boots that have lasted for years because I spent the money to get high quality. It was time to do the same for black boots. Because when you need black boots, brown boots just won’t do! Can I get an Amen! Anyhoo, while the super helpful assistant was in the back, searching for what was available in my size, Karen and I browsed a little too far into the section for boots-you-would-buy-if-it-was-your-birthday-and-you-felt-like-splurging. Oops. When the assistant showed up with an armload of boots suitable for the office, I had to send her away for one more box. I left with two pairs of boots, one of them was thigh-high, velvet, high-heeled, and sexy as hell. Take THAT 48 years old!

Oh, did I tell you I turned 48? Can I just say that 48 is a liiiitttle too close to 50, and I am nowhere near 50 years old. Just… saying.

For my second night, I wanted to turn it up a notch, so I had reserved a room in Seattle landmark, the Olympic Hotel, built in 1924. It’s now a Fairmont hotel. I began to get a sense that this place was all about service like no place I’ve ever stayed. About 10am, I got a personal text that said, “Crystal, your room is ready. You can check in any time you like. Your keys are ready and you can pick them up at either entrance.” It was signed Natalie. I smirked and ignored it. All except for thinking 10 am? Since when is your hotel room ready at 10am? Later in the day, during a down moment, I decided to text “Natalie,” just for giggles. “Hey thanks, Natalie. I’m in Seattle already, visiting my brother for my birthday. I’m not ready to check in yet but I will when we’re done running around. Looking forward to oysters at Shuckers later tonight.”

I was startled to get an immediate response. Natalie was apparently not a robot. She wished me a happy birthday, then asked if she could reserve a table for me at Shuckers, the oyster bar at the hotel.

Happy Birthday from the Olympic Hotel

Something sort of special about a personal welcome.

I was again struck with the service of the place when I arrived and was handed a welcome packet with keys that had my name printed on it. Natalie was the only person I had mentioned my birthday to, and when I arrived in my room, there was a tiny cast-iron pan filled with macaroons and chocolate chips, and a hand-addressed birthday card. Seriously?

That night we ate heaps of oysters and Jim, the fabulous and friendly waiter, chatted with us every time he passed by. I gleefully told him I was celebrating my birthday with my brother, and of course, when we ordered dessert split three ways (we were stuffed to the gills), it came with a birthday candle and garnish. “On the house,” Jim insisted. We goofed around and took photos in the gorgeous empty spaces in the hotel after dinner.

Lovely Fairmont Olympic Hotel

My handsome brother

Ian wanders off

Karen and me waiting for fresh oysters!

Monday, back at the house, I kissed and hugged them goodbye and headed back home to Rainier, only 2 1/2 hours south.

Tuesday, my actual birthday, I had nothing scheduled, but managed to get a half-dozen errands done that had been sitting and waiting for me for weeks. Yes! I LOVE getting things done. Happy birthday gift indeed.

Wednesday I went south to Oregon City for another overdue visit to my dear friend Marlene at insearchofitall. It has been months and months since we’ve seen each other, and have only communicated through our blogs or infrequent emails or cards. I adore Marlene, and though we meant to go to lunch together, we had jabbered non-stop for an hour before we remembered our plans. We jabbered all through a long lunch. I realized on my drive to see her that it was my birthday and I had not had any cake! Marlene kept me company while I went and found a store with just the slice of cake that I needed. Finally I gave hugs and kisses goodbye and headed back in time for my final celebration.

My neighbor, Dick, loves to gamble for fun. There is a brand new casino here – not even a year old – that he keeps saying he’s going to take me to see. It was finally the day. He swung by to pick me up and off we went. The ilani casino in La Center, Washington is definitely the sparkliest thing around. From their website: “The design of the 368,000 square-foot casino resort will project the culture of the Northwest and pay tribute to the heritage of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.” I used to live in Nevada, and I was just recently in the fabulous Cherokee Hard Rock Casino in Tulsa. So this casino is pretty mild in comparison to the big ones. But for the only thing of its kind around, it’s big enough and glitzy enough. And it sucks up your money really well, just like all the other casinos.

Brand new gorgeous ilani casino in LaCenter, WA

Shrimp and scallops with pasta

After a couple hours of gambling, Dick and I went over to try their seafood restaurant. I know, you probably think after all the eating I’ve done in this post that I couldn’t possibly handle more eating. But I suffered through the agony of one more celebratory birthday meal, just so I could take this photo and delight you all. No, I’m kidding of course. One lovely thing about birthdays, everyone wants to feed you! BONUS!! I should have more birthdays. As long as I can stay in my forties, I’ll keep having birthdays year after year, after year, after…

Good Things Jar

A long time ago I wrote a post called Good Things Jar, in which I explained that I had heard about this project and had successfully completed my first year of recording good things in 2014. I never wrote about it again.

The idea is easy to find in many versions on the Internet. And as blogger friend at Contented Crafter mentioned in my first post on the topic, it’s been around for years. You find a container to hold notes, and simply drop in your “good things” thoughts all year long. Then at the end of the year, you review them. It helps you remember how much you’ve come through emotionally in the year, and it gives you perspective. It also allows you to feel joy for those things again, even if they happened months ago.

The good news about the good things jar is that Tara and I have kept it up ever since! I’ve saved all the little slips of paper because I knew that some day I would do another post. Tara and I kept up the tradition of reviewing the notes together in January of 2016. However, this year, with Tara staying at college more and more, the only notes in the jar were from me.

I still use the original jar, pictured here. It’s an antique glass canning jar of my mother’s. The lid says it was made in Canada, and that makes sense, since Mom spent nearly her whole life in Idaho, close to the Canada border. Back in the old days it was easy and common to cross the border without any fuss, planning, or paperwork because all the authorities cared about was whether you were bringing in cheap cigarettes to sell. She may easily have picked it up at a shop in Creston or Nelson, BC.

Disneyland

In the spirit of looking back on New Year’s Day, I reviewed the good things we’ve been thinking about during the past 3 years.

Steam! It’s great

2015 favourites

In 2015 we both wrote a lot about the new house, since it was the biggest thing going on that year until Tara started college in the Fall, which itself earned multiple notes. Tara wrote about Disneyland multiple times. Macaroni and cheese made it to Tara’s list again, to my amusement! Oregon’s wild daffodils made it to my list again. I think seeing items repeat year to year says something about us. We both repeatedly mentioned our friends, and I included my brother Ian twice. We both also wrote down self-affirmations, like mine that says “I am beautiful.” The power of statements like this can’t be denied.

The parts in parentheses are comments I added today that were not on the original pieces of paper.

Tara:

I met awesome and relyable and relatable people @ OSU

  • Your own room and bathroom again
  • I met awesome and relyable and relatable people at OSU (Oregon State University)
  • Finding the perfect squirrel gifts for Mom for Christmas (I agree that squirrel things are good.)
  • Steam! It’s great (I have no idea what this is about, but it’s hilarious)
  • Sudden cookies 2-21-15 (again, don’t know what this means, but I think we can all agree that sudden cookies are a good thing)
  • Friends that you remain friends with even after separation 8-31-15 (the date shows that Tara was still connecting with friends after starting college)
  • Making cosplay is awesome! (costumes for Tara’s favourite annual anime convention)

Me:

Genevieve

  • I managed to keep my spirits up while trying to buy a house 6-20-15 <– still no close
  • Stand up paddle! 4-24-15 (this was in the top 5 of best first dates ever)
  • Ian is an awesome brother & I got to visit twice in March and April 4-9-15
  • My blogging community is filled with real friends 6-20-15 (I love you guys)
  • I was born white in America 9-8-15 (I do not know what prompted this comment. It is a good thing, but saying it publicly makes me flinch a little. I wish I remembered the context.)
  • I had the courage to ask for help 8-7-15 (a pack of friends came and helped me at my house)
  • I am beautiful
  • I have the confidence to apply for the DRO position 10-1-15 (Not only applied, but got the job!)

    A pile of joy

2016 favourites

mac n cheese

Tara only dropped three notes into the jar in 2016, due to hardly ever being at home. They had the idea to start up a Good Things Jar while at college, but I don’t think that has happened. 2016 was a transitional year for both of us, while Tara reconciled a new self-image that included successful college student and let go of the comforts of being a kid, and I learned to take care of my new big property and got used to living alone.

Tara:

  • Snow! 2-15-16

    U-cuts when forests let you down 12/14

  • U-cuts when forests let you down 12-14-16 (ha ha, this pretty much explains itself. We couldn’t find a good tree in a national forest, and on the way out of the mountains we came across a U-Cut Christmas Tree Farm, whipped in and found a gorgeous 10 foot spruce tree for only $28.)
  • Kahlua 12-15-16 (Uh, methinks someone was into the liquor cabinet… But at 19 years old, I’m not concerned.)

Me:

  • I get to watch Spring happen across my land 2-17-16
  • My employer allows me to take the time off that I need 8-3-16
  • Tara has embraced being a student 11-18-16
  • Genevieve! 9-17-16 (I had this same exact one in 2015, but this year there was an exclamation point. Three cheers for best friends.)
  • I can forgive 8-31-16
  • I love my chickens 1-6-16

    A storage system I also adopted from my mom.

2017 favourites

I love my chickens. 1-6-16

This past year had the fewest contributions, partially because Tara was gone, but also because I am growing more accustomed to seeing the Good Things Jar on the countertop among the other jars, as you can see in the photo above.

  • I always rise back up. I smile. I laugh. I see beauty 6-28-17
  • Tara is brave and strong 5-31-17 (You only know half the story, but this young person… is so brave and strong.)
  • Sometimes, when I least expect it, I find out lots of people love me. 11-18-17 (I made a purely casual facebook post that said only cryptically that both good and bad things happen in a person’s life and it’s up to us to choose which things to focus on. Blam! In 24 hours I had been contacted by fb messenger, text, phone, and email by eight separate people checking on me. It was not at all my intent, and I was startled by the reaction. And then… I was touched.)
  • I became a squeaky wheel, and it worked!! 11-24-17 (Speaking up about injustices done to myself is hard for me to do. I am overly concerned about being perceived as acting whiney and entitled. But finally, I was convinced that people needed to get off their butts and do right by me, and I started rattling cages and calling in favors and talking to people up the chain, and viola! It got done.)

    Romain and I love and appreciate each other. 4-21-17 (with the 4-21 underlined for emphasis)

  • Romain and I love and appreciate each other 4-21-17 (Romain is a Rwandan priest I met in school in 2005. He has a tough time every April, the anniversary of his personal tragedy. Note, I underlined the date.)
  • My blogger people always make me feel better
  • My cards to Suz worked exactly as planned 3-15-17

    My cards to Suz worked exactly as planned 3-15-17 (Susie was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of the year. She lives on the East coast and I live on the West coast. I couldn’t think of what to do for her. So I began writing cards and postcards in which I talked about only non-cancer related topics. I never expected a response, but she took the time to tell me that’s exactly what she liked about my correspondence: no cancer for just a moment.)

I have a hunch that writing this post places this tradition squarely into my conscious mind once more, and when I see it I’ll act. Because, you know, I can always think of something. Every single time I look at the jar and ask myself, “What is a good thing, right now?” There is always an answer. And that’s probably the best good thing of all of them.

 

One of my many guises

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