Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sunday, April 27, 2014

the unspoken

We met two ladies while taking an unplanned visit into Yangon's famed Strand Hotel. The hotel was built in 1901 and is claimed to be one of the most luxurious hotels in the entire British Empire. White elite mingled within its walls until Myanmar was taken over by the Japanese in the second World War. After that, the locals were permitted entrance. The building fell into disrepair for many years until 1993 when it re-opened as a wildly expensive boutique hotel.

But the story I'm trying to tell is not about the Strand. It's about the ladies we met. Or, to be more specific, the recent experience of one of them.

They are both teachers at a local international school. One is an uncensored older white lady from middle America, substituting abroad for 3-6 month stints in her retirement years. The other is a mid-30's woman from the Virgin Islands with long weaved braids piled atop her head, constantly at the receiving end of goggly eyes and gapped mouths. She's a rarity in these parts, one the locals will get used to at some point, though.  Her contract is for two years.

And it is her introduction to the country that I'm about to share.

A few weeks prior to our meeting at the hotel, her friend, a burly Virgin Islander who brought about as much attention as her hair, came to visit. Eager to show him around the city and gain a taste of local life, they went to dinner at one of the roadside restaurant stalls. Each sat on one of the child-sized red plastic chairs and ate traditional (overly oily) curry.

At the tiny table next to them sat a solitary Aussie male. The three struck up a conversation which changed tides when she stepped away to the bathroom. She came back just in time to overhear the Aussie ask her friend if he'd like to see the underground prostitution circuit.

"Yes!" she chimed in, to the surprise of both of them.

Piled into a taxi, they pulled up to random inauspicious building with a number of men, looking not too unlike valets, standing outside. Passing a few words back and forth, one of the street attendants led them inside the building and joined them up the elevator to the top floor. He ushered them into a dining hall with a stage at the far wall and showed them to a table. He then became their waiter for the evening.

He gave them basic instructions on how the event would proceed, and the Aussie filled them in on the rest.

"You bid, like an auction." they were told by the valet-cum-waiter. "When you win the girl, she comes over and you place this wreath of flowers around her neck. She will then wait off to the side until the end of the round, or the end of the show, depending on when you're ready to leave. All transactions will be done through me."

The proceedings began with one woman after another parading across the stage. Bids were offered and received. Wreaths were placed over necks. At the end of the round there was a small intermission.

Then the next round came. This one bringing younger faces to the stage.

"But it was the third round which compelled me to leave," she said to us. "My comfort level was in question the entire evening, but once I saw the girls in the third round! I mean, I know the Burmese in general can look younger than they are, especially due to their size. But they looked no older than the children I teach."

Her friend was just as uncomfortable. So they requested the multi-purposed pimp, playing the roll of waiter, to escort them back downstairs.

The Aussie stayed. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

a nation, unchanged.

From everything we envisioned Myanmar to be, we hadn't expected it to be so industrial, so built up. There was surprise in seeing the British colonial buildings of Yangon, the first class buses transporting people across the country, the many booming businesses stretched across the major metropolises of Mandalay and Yangon, and the thriving expat community partying the nights away at (the rare) hip clubs.

Now in effort to not paint a false picture, the country is third world. It's just hard to recognize in the moment, when your senses are being pulled in different directions, attracted to the new, the unique, the beautiful. Not until you finally leave the land of gold do you realize how undeveloped the country actually is.

The (quite possibly only) benefit of having been shut off from all other countries for years on end is the preservation of culture. Especially as it neighbors a few countries who's cultures have started to blend together in efforts to become "more Western".

Technology is only starting to take flight.  Internet, although widely available, is excruciatingly slow at best.* International ATM's have just been installed within the last two years. There are no franchises.** Generic, pirated, Coca-Cola has only recently been replaced with the real thing. And Coke, alone, is the only sign of infiltration from the Western World.

With the ever increasing influx of tourists, locals are taking notice of modern technology. Namely, the iPhone. And they are anything but shy; requesting to barter goods of exchange in order to have one of their own.

It's a world unlike any other. Rich in color. From teeth stained red from chewed beetle nut, to the juice of which has been spit and splattered on the ground. The faces painted white with thanaka (the paste of ground tree bark or root) to the sarong-like longyi covering men and women alike. The vibrant, varying shades of green landscapes to the blindingly shiny gold temples.

Burma is today exactly what Rudyard Kipling wrote nearly a century ago, "Quite unlike any place you know about."

* We were in Kalaw, a tiny town in the center of the country. Internet speed at our minimalist guesthouse was the best it had been in weeks. I craved a dose of false reality that only comes in the form of television shows. In efforts to stream an episode of New Girl, I sat glued to my laptop at 5 second incremental spurts - dispersed between 30-40 minutes of buffering and uploading. Esther, unable to comprehend why I was doing so, asked "Why don't you just wait until we get into Thailand?" But my innate need for "false reality" clouded my judgement in spite of being the cause of another's annoyance. So I continued at it... over the course of two days... until the entire 20 minute episode was watched. 

** KFC recently received a license to build franchises within the next 5 years. Sadly, that means the country will never be the same from that point on. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

what's not stated in outdated guide books

Upon our parting in Indonesia, Esther and I agreed to a second travel venture at a later date. In Myanmar.

A number of months and a few countries later, we reunited in a questionable, $15.00 a night room in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) which she secured for us subsequent her early arrival.

My flight was a few hours behind, giving Esther enough time to orientate herself in the city, and give me words of advice during my layover in Bangkok.

"You can change money at the airport, it's a good rate," she wrote.

Formerly, anything besides illegal street transactions would leave you cheated out of a significant amount of cash. Today, the opposite rings true. Banks and the airport are your best options.

Then there were tips on taxi sharing. "Its a 45 minute ride into the city," she explained.

"Alright," I responded. "I should arrive around 6pm then."

Little did I realize peak traffic would more than double my travel time.

"Cool. I'll tell the front desk your name. Should be back before you arrive, but I'm going to the market to buy a Burmese sarong. I feel like a ho in my shorts here."

Monday, April 14, 2014

boat crossing

Just across the water from Hong Kong, in a land not too far away, lies a place where Asians used to speak Portuguese fluently. Some still do.

"You speak really well," one local told me as we spoke in Portuguese on the streets of Macau.

I laughed. An Asian telling me I speak the latin based language well.

"You do too," I responded just as incredulously.

A former colony, Macau is now a casino hotspot for the wealthy Chinese border-hoppers. But amongst the gaudy new buildings - one in a shape as audacious as a pineapple - a few classic architectural sites remain in tact... at least partially.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Venice of Hong Kong

Per the illustrious and undeniably accurate internet go-to entitled Wikipedia, the following information was gathered about the tiny island-town of Tai O, located on the southwestern tip of Lantau Island.
"When the British came to Hong Kong, Tai O was known as Tanka village. During and after the Chinese Civil War, Tai O became a primary entry point for illegal immigration for those escaping from the People's Republic of China. Some of these immigrants, mostly Han Chinese, stayed in Tai O, and Tai O attracted people from other Hong Kong ethic groups." 
The villagers who were primarily fishermen, and have lived for years in wood stilt houses, are now opting to leave for the big city when they come of age. Fishing, unfortunately, doesn't provide the income it once did. But the older generation hold strong, and keep the town alive.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

the bigger the Buddha...

Hong Kong's largest island, Lantau, likes to do all things on a grander scale.  With enough space to house one of the busiest airports in Asia, it has also brought Disney to its land. But most impressive of all, what most tourists flock to the island for (apart from catching their next flight) is the stunning, 3.5 mile, cable car ride up and across lush mountains and deep ravines to reach the 112 foot tall (34 meter) Buddha.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

a city of 1,223 skyscrapers

Hong Kong has become a financial epicenter in the past few decades, crowding the mainland and the island namesake with more buildings than seems actually possible. To say the city is crowded would be an understatement. Saying retail property is expensive would be too.

Thankfully I had connections... and a true Hong Kong living experience due to it. Humphrey's grandmother owned land on the mainland. Or, to be more specific, a small two bedroom apartment. It has remained with the family ever since.  And as an inherited property owner, he flew all the way from Amsterdam to welcome me into it. 

A long hallway with gated doors greeted us, after exiting the elevator, as we walked to his apartment. Smells of food wafted in the air from the indoor facing windows of neighboring tenants.

"Some of these apartments are divided up into tiny rooms and rented to multiple different people," Humphrey commented as we walked past a certain apartment. "If you stand on your tip-toes you can see it through the window." 

I stole a glance, baffled by the confined way of life. 

When we reached the door of his apartment, he stopped. "By the way," he warned me, "you might smell moth balls." 

His mom requested some be placed in the apartment to rid it of moths. His brother went overboard and deposited an entire package worth in the closet. The smell was wildly apparent. Even though in Humphrey's last visit, a few months before, he had removed every last bit. 

The smell was wildly apparent, but only added to the deeply Chinese atmosphere of the environment. It was part of the experience. That, along with the offerings to grandma placed on the family shrine to appease her soul with our intrusion.