Work – took me for a spin
Life – faded into the background
Now, there’s time
Work – took me for a spin
Life – faded into the background
Now, there’s time
Almost two weeks ago, I turned off my computer, my iPhone as well as my iPad and left them in a drawer at home. For the first time in a many years, I was totally disconnected from the world while travelling through Burma. As I got used to this digital remoteness, strangely relaxing and stressful at the same time, I realized how much I appreciate having access to information whenever a question pops into my mind – and that happens a lot. I usually do look for the answer to questions that come to mind and I missed not being able to find the life expectancy of Burma when I wanted to know (65.24 yrs).
Going to Burma is very popular these days and there are a limited number of places that tourists tend to visit. These are the same places my friend and I went, pretty soon we started recognizing people (tourists). We started in Rangoon, went on to Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake to end up back in Rangoon.
We walked around Rangoon, seeing old run down colonial buildings that used to hold different government offices. Now many of them are empty, as the offices have moved to the new capital, Naypyidaw. Military organizations have been re-located as the government recognizes that tourists would not enjoy seeing militaries on the streets of Rangoon.
Bagan is known for one thing, well two actually: temples and pagodas. And possibly watching the sun set behind the temples and pagodas. Beautiful as many of them are, for someone not particularly interested in history, they quickly became part of the scenery. I am amazed at the intricate work put into these temples, I am in awe of the beauty of some of the ruins (yes, I am afraid I prefer the ruins to the intact complete temples) and the landscape, but really enough pagodas already.
I had conflicted feelings about going to Mandalay. There are a few places in the world whose names conjure up images of magical places in me. Mandalay is one of those names and I was afraid I would be disappointed in a city that apparently has lost much of its´ charm, at least if I were to believe what I had read before. Yes, I am sure it would have been an even more magical place when people only traveled by foot and possibly bicycles and before the more modern parts were developed. That is probably true for any place, and I do not expect people to keep living in the past for my enjoyment. I loved Mandalay with its’ many monasteries and beautiful trees creating a peaceful sometimes even serene atmosphere (mostly depending on the number of tourists enjoying it at the same time).
There is only one way to describe Inle Lake – a cool place! In so many ways. About 300,000 people live on this lake. They are mostly farmers growing vegetables in floating gardens or fishermen, having developed the very unique style of rowing with one foot while standing on the other, thereby freeing both hands for fishing. Inle Lake is surrounded by mountains and the scenery is stunning, as is the cold when the sun sets. I lost track of the number of layers I was wearing early in the morning, but what a beautiful place.
I just got back to Bangkok and it will take some time for me to digest all my impressions about the very complex country of Burma. Obviously, it is a country troubled by its’ past, and the future will depend on what happens in the next couple of years. Whoever is running the country it is not an easy task to unite people from more than 130 ethnic groups with their own distinct cultures and languages. I do hope they find a way, because Burma is rich country full of natural as well as cultural resources. It is a beautiful place to visit, full of helpful and open people who are obviously incredibly resilient. I do wish the very best for my neighbor and hope that many more will get to experience the fascinating country of Burma.
This week was the November full moon, which means time to celebrate one of my favorite Thai holidays, Loy Kratong. A kratong is a decorated float traditionally made of the trunk of a banana tree and decorated with banana leafs, flowers, incense sticks and a candle. Sometimes people put coins on their kratongs as a small offering to the river spirits or even nail clippings or hair representing negativity or bad deeds they want to leave behind.
On the evening of the November full moon, people will go to the nearest waterway. Light the candle and loy (float) their kratong while making a wish. They will watch their kratong as it makes its way over the water, hoping the candle will not go out as its flame is supposed to signify a long life, the fulfillment of wishes and release of any bad deeds.
This ritual might have originated as an expression of gratitude to the goddess of water and a thanksgiving to all she has provided. No matter what the history of it is, it is a great opportunity to leave regrets behind and get a fresh start while moving towards the future.
I have always struggled to see the beauty of poetry. I think I was turned off of the whole genre in school where I had a hard time being told that I interpreted poems incorrectly. To my teenage mind, an interpretation is personal and therefore should not be deemed correct or incorrect. Today I can see that there are interpretations that may be more in line with the author´s intentions. I still don´t think it is a very good idea to classify an interpretation as incorrect. Might it at least be softened to unusual or excentric. Any way, in trying to put that behind me I come back to poetry every now and then to try to learn to appreciate this form of expression. I still struggle with written poetry, possibly because I am too impatient to really take it in, but I have found a form I love. Spoken poetry reaches me in ways that written poetry does not (yet). It is powerful, immediate and emotional. One of my absolute favorites is Sarah Kay. Listen to her TED talk including “If I Should have a Daughter…” and her thoughts about spoken poetry.
Today has been a day spent thinking about dictatorships. I have been reading a fascinating and beautifully written book by Vaddey Rattner. “In the Shadow of the Banyan” is a work of fiction based on Vaddey´s own experiences when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and managed to kill almost a third of the population in four or five years. In preparation for my upcoming trip to Burma, I have also started reading “Perfect Hostage”, a biography over Aung San Suu Kyi and her father and their key roles in the history of Burma. I took a break from reading to have lunch with an Iranian friend who expressed concern over the way things are developing in her country.
Three different countries and situations of course, yet they have some very troubling similarities. What is it that makes us so willing to treat others inhumanely in order to gain and maintain control? In Cambodia, the Red Khmers systematically forced people out of their homes just to create chaos which allowed them to take and maintain control through terror. They separated families claiming that the only connection people should have was with the revolutionary movement. Isolating people, taking away everything that gives them a sense of security and order must be the most effective way to invoke fear and maintain power over others. It is the basis for all forms of abuse of power. It builds on fear, invoking and maintaining fear in others. But I also think fear is behind the phenomenon from the perpetrators point of view. I am not sure if I feel more anger or sadness at the thought of what has happened, and is still happening in the world. My mind is full of random thoughts and I wish I could make some sense of them. I wish someone could make enough sense of what makes people able to treat their fellow human beings in these ways. If we could understand what conditions fosters this type of behavior, maybe we could find a way to prevent it from being as widespread as it still is today.
One of my favorite countries is Costa Rica, a country that offers amazing opportunity to experience wildlife up close, but it is a country unique in other ways as well. Costa Rica is the only country I know of which had a leader with enough courage and insight to make a radical change for the betterment of its people. In 1948 President José Figueres Ferrer abolished the military and re-allocated the former military budget to education, culture and security. I wish there more leaders with his ability to think long-term and without letting fear of others guide their decisions.
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine posted the following on Facebook:
“Next time I want to buy a puzzle of a painting with impressionist-beige sky and buildings, and a woman in a dark outfit sitting in a dark carriage, just slap it out of my hands and point me to one with a lively, varied, multi-colored image. Ack.”
It made me smile but then it lingered in the back of my mind. Yesterday, I bought myself a puzzle. See, I used to love to do jigsaw puzzles but I haven´t done one in close to twenty years. When I moved in with my ex-husband he didn´t like having a puzzle laying around and thought the whole thing a waste of time. Validity of those arguments aside, somewhere somehow I decided to stop doing puzzles. Over time I forgot that I love doing them. Yesterday, I started again and I still love it.
Something about the process of finding and fitting the pieces helps my (generally over-active analyzing) brain relax and I can just be. It is almost meditative. Just seeing colors, patterns and shapes opens the mind up for new ideas and new associations. As life happens we leave things behind and find new interests, it´s a natural process. Me not doing any puzzles is not a big deal of course, yet the thought nags me. If I have forgotten this about myself. If I have decided to no longer give myself the pleasure of doing a jigsaw, what else am I not doing anymore? What other aspects of myself have I forgotten or ignored?
I am part of an online community organized by one of my favorite authors, Patti Digh. We get daily prompts to ponder and sometimes act on. The other day I read two prompts for the day. The first one was:
“Smile at everyone you meet today”
That’s an easy one. I always do that. Or rather, I always do that when I meet a thai-looking person. Most thais are shy around westerners and will often not initiate a smile. But there is nothing more beautiful than seeing the neutral face of a shy thai turn into a great smile in response. It is like a light is turned on behind their face, the connection is immediate and it feels like you are best friends. There are a few people I usually meet as I walk to work in the morning, we have developed this ritual of greeting each other with a smile. I know nothing about them, apart from them walking down my soi at 6.30 am every day, but I love the friendliness and how I feel connected to my fellow walkers. I miss them on the rare days that we don´t see each other.
The other prompt for that same day made me smile:
“Simplicities are enormously complex. Consider the sentence “I love you”.” ― Richard O. Moore, Writing the Silences
It is as if Patti Digh knows what it´s like to live in Thailand. These two prompts go so well together for me. I used to think smiling was pretty simple, now I know it´s an art form. There are ample opportunities to study conflicts between Thais and westerners known as falangs, and very often they relate to or are escalated by smile-related misunderstadings. Here´s a typical scenario:
Falang asks for information or help with something. A thai person can´t answer either because they don´t know or because the falang spoke fast in a foreign language and they didn´t fully understand. For the thai saying no isn´t really an option since that is considered unhelpful and therefore rude. In fact, the thai language doesn´t have a word assigned to the meaning “no”, you have to construct the expression for no by saying “not yes”. The natural response for any thai is a smile. They are trying to politely show the falang that they can´t answer, but that they are respectful enough to not say so and cause any loosing of faces. The falang will get a bit frustrated and feels ignored by this person who just keeps looking at them, smiling. They repeat their question thinking that maybe they didn´t realize they were asked a question. The thai is now getting very uncomfortable and will tighten that smile even harder, something the falang may not even notice. As the falang is getting worked up by this rude person who is just staring blankly at them with what seems an inappropriate smile, the thai is out of options. This is usually when the situation gets out of control, the falang will raise his or her voice in frustration and the thai will experience this as very confrontational and shut down. Both faces are lost and there is no way out of the situation.
This is just one example of the complexity of smiles around here, I will probably never fully understand all the facets of the culture here. If you have read my post about the thai hearts you will also know that I may not want to learn to master all the different aspects of smiling. That said, I am very happy to act on Patti´s prompt about smiling to everyone I meet not only today but every day. Maybe I will even expand it to include non-thai looking people.