2015
07.04

 

A detailed account of the very bizarre experience of shipping a package from Yangon and about taking the Circular Train.

I was welcomed like the long-lost son, or rather daughter, when I arrived this morning at the Thanlwin Guesthouse where I had started my journey six weeks ago.  It was a great feeling to have a home away from home and to know that I could relax and get ready for my 3-day journey back home.  The first thing I needed after the 14 hour night bus from Inle Lake was a shower and a nap.  And yes, it will take me about 2 1/2 travel days to arrive in Detroit on four flights, with long hours of layover.

When I spread out all the trinkets I accumulated over the last six weeks in my deluxe room (to which I had been upgraded without asking) at the Thanlwin Guesthouse, it became clear that I had blown the capacity of my suitcase and all the luggage allowances set by the various airlines.  I had to ship a package. That is nothing new; I almost always have to on these trips.  But I had been warned about the Myanmar postal system.  There is only one post office in all of Myanmar authorized for foreign shipments.  It is located at the Bogyoke market in Yangon.  I had checked out the location, the prices, and the opening hours previously and I had met the person in charge of the office, a middle-aged chatty lady who looked like she was of Indian origin.  I was pretty confident that all would be fine.  But the reality came as a surprise.

With an 8 kg box under my arm on which I had worked on all morning, I arrived at the post office in a downpour — what else, right?!  To pre-empt any questions, I had prepared a detailed shipping list, an address label, provided the value of the content, packed the box to precision and left it open for inspection — I had learned that in the past.  If there were any questions, the clerk could check and inspect any item before certifying the legitimacy of the content and sealing the box.

First, she quoted my 1.5x the price I knew it should be.  She had two lists, one for the fast service, the other for the slow one.  I had clearly specified the slow way and she had pulled the list for the fast one…  Well, I set her straight on that one.

Then she collected the money for the package and added:  Now you need to give me something, too.  I must have looked bewildered because she added:  What you gave me is for the shipping.  But I have to do the packing.  No, I countered.  I did all the packing.  And this is your job!  She shook her head.  I need something.  Reluctantly I pulled out one dollar.  She shook her head.  Then two and three.  And there I stopped and repeated:  You hardly have to do anything.  I did all the work, this is it!  It is your job.  She did not ask for more.  But she did not seem happy.  The shipping cost $100.  She must have expected more.

At that point she said her goodbyes to me.  But wait a minute!  She had not closed the package yet!  I pulled her over to the box, pointed to the shipping list and asked her to read it.  Any questions?  She slowly went through it line by line reading off one unobjectionable souvenir after another.  She just could not find anything wrong with it.  OK, let’s seal the package then, I demanded.  Reluctantly, she started to put the tape on.  I insisted that the packing list would be kept inside to verify every item in the box.  Then I left.

But about five blocks away it occupied my mind that this still did not mirror any other shipping experience I had had anywhere in the world.  What was it?!  It finally dawned on me that she had not filled out any paperwork!  I handed $100 over without any receipt and a package on top of it.  All could disappear without a trace.  Back I went.

I need a receipt.

Almost 1/2 hour had passed between my departure and my return. The postal clerk was chatting with a young girl.  I doubt she had had another customer since.  But she had not even touched my package or processed the first step in getting it ready for shipment.  She still was not willing to do that.  Everywhere in the world I get a copy of the actual shipping label; not in Yangon.  I got her to write me a flimsy receipt though.  And I asked her for her picture.  I am sure she saw right through my charming request.  This was not to remember her.  This was to have a face with the fact in case that package and its full content would not make it back to my home within a month or two.  She asked for it!  Now I am crossing my fingers.  I am not quite ready to hold my breath though…

— — —

What next?  The Gem Museum had been on my tentative plan.  But when I stood downtown with the prospect of imminent heavy, if short rain showers, I thought of another way of spending my last afternoon: I would take the Circular Train.

It is an antiquated 50-60 year old train system which was built to connect downtown with the poorest outskirts of Yangon.  A 6-10 wagon train painted bright red rattles along age-old tracks like any other train in Myanmar.  The windows are shutters that can be closed in case of rain and during the 3 hour circuit, we had to do this about three times.  Any part of the  trip (or the whole circuit for that matter) costs 20 cents.  There are no doors, but openings in every cart where people get on and off if need be with the train in motion.

If you want to know what life in Yangon is like and you only have 3 hours, the Circular Train will give you the full spectrum.  From the laborers coming and going with their tools, from the vendors carrying their heavy loads, from the woman with her sick child in her arm, to the family, from the business man, the student, the loving young couple, to the police man patrolling the train.  A look out the window will give you the full spectrum as well; from the fields the factories, from the huts to the villas.   I hardly noticed the three hours.  They flew by.  Along the way a young student named Pa-O sat next to me.  I told him how much I appreciated the opportunity to travel in his country and how impressed I was with the ever-friendly people who always had a big smile for me.  He summed up the way of life in Myanmar as good as anyone could have and so I will leave the last word about Myanmar to him:

We have learned to control our minds.  We can control our angers and we can control our wants.  That is because of Buddhism.  People in Myanmar look at the bright side of life.  That’s why we always smile.  

2015
07.03

About an excursion to the cave of caves of Eastern Myanmar.  8094 Buddhas, four wonderful locals, a new travel companion and some rain, of course.  And about umbrella making Myanmar style.

I was heading up another mountain today and what else is new? I arrived in the rain…  By now, that’s what I expect when I go on mountain pilgrimages as the holy mountains of Myanmar obviously have an issue with me.  But then… the sun came out before I started my descent and I did not fall this time.  Perhaps, there is hope?

I was not alone.  Stephanie from Germany and Mr. Young from South Korea joined me and shared a taxi with me.  With Mr. Young, I had already shared the Inle Lake boat trip two days ago.  Stephanie I met last night at the guest house.  She had taken a 6 months leave from her high-powered job as a patent lawyer to get away for a while.  She was a delight to be with and to talk to in German.  We were a great group, even though this was not quite how I had pictured this day.  I had wanted to “rough it” once again, be on the road, mingle with the locals, not ride around in a taxi.  But roughing it would have looked something like this:

Catch a motored tricycle early in the morning to “the junction” where at some time before noon a bus should arrive that takes you to a little village called A>>>>>>>.  There you need to find “the pickup” place where tuck-tucks that head north fill up with locals.  It is anyone’s guess how long that might take.  Once you arrive in town you have to hire a motorcycle to take you up to the mountain to the cave or you have to climb the entire mountain from the bottom up.  For sure you need to spend the night at Pindaya as there would be no way you would make this journey back in one day…  Ok, perhaps a taxi does not sound so bad after all?

The two-hour ride each way took us through beautiful rolling hills of alternating red and green fields.  The reds were areas where the soil of the land shone through.  The greens were anything from cabbage, to potatoes, beans, silkworm plants [note by DG: Google sez that silkworms eat only mulberry leaves], even vineyards and tea plantations.  Judging by the prosperous looking villages — houses looked sturdy  and spacious — people made a decent living around here by farming.  Many women were out in the fields working with hoes, typically in groups of three to ten people.  Men were plowing their fields with the quintessential pair of white back-horned cows [note by DG: Google sez that this would be a zebu].  It was a good day for farming:  cool, breezy, cloudy.

You know you are approaching a holy site when dozens if not hundreds of stupas cluster at the bottom of the mountain; votive offerings by devotees who hope to gain merit.  What used to be a treacherous climb in the olden days had long ago developed into a manageable covered walk lined with stairs.  But nowadays it is two giant steel pylons right above the parking lot, housing two glass elevators that not only deface the beautiful mountain site, but that turn a merit-gaining pilgrimage into a photo-op Sunday afternoon excursion site.  One of the most iconic photo ops is a heroic archer pointing his arrow at an enormous, hideous spider at the very entrance to the mountain.  Huh?  Well, it was Thursday and only a few visitors aside from us were around.

In Hpa’an I had seen cave sites before.  In principle, this site, the Shwe U Min, was no different.  A natural cave had been discovered at a point in time that nobody can quite determine any more.  And from then on, people had filled the cave with Buddhas and other votive images.  This is a process that obviously still continues as we watched the preparation for the installation of more Buddha figures in progress, and some donor plaques were quite recent.  This cave has several cavities and a length of about 500 feet.  Impressive stalactites and stalagmites form the backdrop for a maze of little walkways lined with over 8000 Buddha figures big and small.  If it were not for some super bright, naked, dangling electric light bulbs installed to keep the bats out, the cave could glow in a warm array of gold.  Despite the bright spots, there is a majesty and serenity to these figures that no one can escape.  It is a forest of Buddhas you can get lost in, and for nearly two hours we did.

As we entered the cave we must have looked rather lost as a local woman pointed us in the right direction in very good English.  She was a visitor to the cave herself from Yangon and had come to visit the site with her daughter and her two nephews.  She must have looked at us as a good opportunity for an English lesson for her kids, as she volunteered her flock to guide us through the cave.  That was a delightful experience as these young students had a few stories up their sleeves which they had just heard from their own Burmese guide:

As folklore has it, seven people were trapped once in this cave by a spider who had spun the entrance closed and it was a brave archer-hero, who rescued them all!  That certainly explained the Disney figures outside.  There were more stories of this sort and others:  Almost all the Buddhas in the cave are gilded (or at least made of a shiny gold bronze), but a few are pitch-black.  They are the so-called perspiring images — they sweat so much that no gold leaf will stick to them.  It is particularly good luck if you put your hands on theirs, then cross your arms in front of your chest and make a wish.  And at one spot — I forgot why it was so special — if you make a wish, backed by the total belief in the power of the Buddha, any wish — it will come true!  Superstition and Buddhism, folklore and doctrine, as everywhere in Myanmar they go hand in hand.  And in this cave they came together in a powerful visual display.

I am two days from departing Myanmar and it was as if the driver had read my thoughts: there was one workshop I had not yet been able to attend, the umbrella makers.  He asked if we were interested in seeing one.  Yes!

The third generation of this local family is operating one of three umbrella workshops in the area: brother, sister, children, aunts and the extended family is involved in the production of umbrellas and lanterns made of hand-made paper.

Once again, the process is labor intensive, ingenious, and done with tools that were invented eons ago.  The bark of a tree is harvested in strips and stored for about a year.  Then it is soaked for several days and boiled for several hours until it is a fibrous blob of slimy material.  It is pounded for about 1/2 hour before it is stirred up in a pot with water and distributed into a square wood and cloth frame suspended in a water basin.  Flower petals and leaves (or anything you can think of) are added for decoration.  The wood frame is then lifted and left out to dry in the sun for several hours.  Then, the handmade dried paper can be peeled off the cloth.  It is surprisingly sturdy.

Handles with clips, and the delicate wooden skeletons for the umbrella are hand-carved and then assembled and tightened with thread. The paper is glued on to the wood and cut.  It all sounds so simple, but I am telling you I was in awe over how the clip was carved that holds the umbrella up out of nothing but bamboo.  This is a mechanism that needs to withstand repeated pressure and it does.  And I was in awe over the intricate network of threads that keeps all the wooden bamboo strips in the right places.  Some decorative umbrellas are as small as dinner plates, others larger than a person.  You can easily sit four people under one of those, safely protected from the sun.  I wish I could have brought back one of the those big ones for our porch…

Now I can leave Myanmar in peace.  I think I saw most of the major processes of handicrafts that are still practiced here.  But then, I would have never thought of rubber bands as a hand-made item…  Who knows what else these people craft out of nothing but what they find around them?  My hat is off to them!

2015
07.02

Images from the five-day rotating market in Nyaung Shwe.  A day of catching up.

It was time for a short day and for writing blogs and processing photos.  It takes four hours per day to keep up and I had once again fallen behind with full days like the boat trip on Inle Lake yesterday…

It was market day in Nyaung Shwe.  This region is known for two unusual markets:  The “floating market”, which really means little more than a market in one of the marsh-towns of Inle Lake and the “five-day market” which refers to a rotating schedule between the major towns of this area.  On such market days the otherwise sleepy local market swells to triple and quadruple proportions and vendors as well as customers from the surrounding mountain areas descend upon the town.  I spent three morning hours squeezing my way through the tiny crowded alleys of the market, smelling, tasting, looking, sneaking pictures, wondering, guessing, being amazed, and buying one little souvenir trinket.

There is not much that I can say, but these places are full of stuff I have never seen nor would I know how to classify them.  Are these things to eat?  Are these medicinal herbs, cooking ingredients, construction materials?  Is this manufactured?  Is it natural?  If I had a local guide explaining things to me I would be miles ahead of the game.  As it is, I am mainly looking for photo ops.  Faces are intriguing and in this region a group of women stand out with their red and orange turban-like head gear.  They are from the Pao ethnic group and are distinctly beautiful and darker skinned than most other women.

The markets are definitely a woman’s domain.  There are a few men but in a clear minority.  Most vendors and most buyers are women.  Some have their children with them.  Some carry tremendous loads on either their heads or on their shoulders, strapped tight around their foreheads!  All of them are busy looking and bargaining.  All the vendors sit and once you decide to buy, the buyer also sits.  Weighing is done the old-fashioned way with a portable scale and weights.  Everything is paid in cash.

So, enjoy the images and if you can identify any of the weird stuff you see, let me know.

I will head home and start to get some work done!

2015
07.01

 

A day on the lake in a traditional boat observing life as it could have been lived in the 18th Century.   About making clothes out of lotus stalks!

There was little today that reminded me of the times I live in except for the electric motor used by most of the cargo and tourist boats on Inle Lake.  But even those motors could have been there 100 years ago if not 200.  It was as if life had been frozen in time.

The Inle Lake region is a succession of very shallow lakes connected by rivers,  surrounded by fertile land and framed by rolling mountains.  Fishing is obviously a major part of life, and on our 8-hour tour crisscrossing the northernmost lake today, we observed a variety of fishing methods.

We — that is a South Korean business man, Mr. Young, who arrived within ten minutes of me at the Aquarius Inn yesterday.  This boat trip is just what you do and what you come for around here, so the assumption is that you “check that off’ on the first full day of your stay.  A boat can be hired for about $20 and will take up to 6 passengers.  The more fellow travelers you can find, the better the price-per-person gets.  The two of us were a good start and by the end of last night we had rounded up Sora, a young Japanese girl and David, a backpacker from Switzerland.

Our captain met us at the hotel and walked with us to the jetty where dozens of slender, upward pointing boats were lined up.  They transport cargo or passengers on demand.  When locals are transported across the lake they sit on the wooden planks, upward of a dozen or so.  When tourists are loaded, they get wooden lawn chairs to sit in, no more than six.  We Westerners are known for not doing so well for hours in seating positions…  The boats have no roof, and reports from sunny summer travelers are that by about noon this trip can become unbearable.  The rainy season was kind to us.  We had a full cover of clouds which rarely broke for more than ten minutes of sun shine, but we had no rain.  It could not have been better.

This was a beautiful and relaxing day.  There is something mesmerizing about water.  The hours pass by doing nothing but looking.  There are the unique Inle Lake fishermen, who stand on one leg at the end of their boats balancing their bodies by wrapping the other leg around an oar.  With their hands free they operate their fishing nets. It is beyond me why they don’t fall.  And I wonder who came up with this?  Somehow it must be an effective way of operating these fishing boats or this method would not have survived for hundreds of years.  I did not tire of looking at these men.

Other boats were operated by a team of two.  Often women or children would steer and process the catch while the men would stand and carefully throw and then collect their nets.  Each time they seem to catch something.  And then I saw some young men who stood in small boats, beating the water with a paddle.  I could not figure out what that was for.  They could hardly be killing fish like this directly.  Where they driving them into nets they had planted previously?

Dozens of villages line the lake.  Some of them are entire “floating villages” with houses built on stilts and literally over the lake; others are partially built into the lake but back up onto the main land.  The lake is shallow and I could not help but think of the Aztecs, who had built their capital Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco.  In both cases the lakes were shallow.  But contrary to the Inle Lake people, the Aztecs did not built on stilts but chose to create chinampas, floating islands, which they anchored in the soil with fast growing trees.  Both methods allowed each culture to live with and on the lake rather than next to it.

Inle Lake has it all: a floating market, floating monasteries and pagodas, floating workshops, homes, restaurants, stores, vegetable gardens, and recently, costly floating hotel resorts.  We stopped at a few places.  Memorable was a silversmith workshop where intricate jewelry was produced featuring a variety of distinct ethnic local designs.  As everywhere else, these were family businesses handed down for generations.  Young boys worked on benches bent over tiny silver parts.   One of them heated and shaped the silver with an old fashioned forge bellow he was pumping full of air with one hand while pushing a silver wire through the fire with the other.

We stopped at a village where three women from the famous “long-neck” tribe, the Badaung were working as weavers.  Aside from that, they were most desirable photo subjects for any and all foreigners who stopped by.  They made money from donations for allowing themselves to be photographed.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see three of these unique hill tribe women, but I was also utterly uncomfortable with the setting in which they were displayed like trophies.  On a table near their work area, samples of the neck bracelets they were wearing were displayed.  They were so heavy!  I had no idea!

Never say no and never think you know it all!  The question came up if we wanted to see a weaving factory and I of all people said that I did not need “another one” after having seen several weaving workshops by now.  Thankfully, the Japanese girl was interested and so we all went.  There never is just “another one”; not with all the pagodas, stupas, and temples and not with all the workshops around here.  Yes, there were the looms I had seen before and the cotton and silk products I had seen in various places around Myanmar, but never ever had I heard that you could make clothes out of lotus stalks!  A man sat on the floor with a pile of 2-3 feet long lotus stalks next to him.  With a knife he gently made a cut about two inches from the top, separating that part and pulling a bunch of very fine white fibers out from the inside of the stalk.  He did this several more times until the stalk was only about 10 inches long and he had pulled all the fibers from that one stalk.  On to the next.  After about 20 stalks, he was able to roll up the fibers into a single, sturdy thread.  We learned that it takes 4000 lotus stalks and 20 full days of pulling fibers before one small scarf of about 4 feet by 10 inches can be produced costing a whopping $160 dollars!

I was completely impressed, at least for a while.  Then I began to wonder:  Lotus Clothing How old was this method?  Was this a fad product developed for tourists?  It was definitely nothing that would go into mass production or was even feasible for large-scale consumption.  It was nothing that would satisfy animal activists, as it never could compete with the wide-spread silk production.  The fabric was nice, but if you would not know what you were looking at you would think you would handle a $10 mix of raw-silk and cotton.  What was the point of this?  Unfortunately, we were moved along and these questions only occurred to me much later.   I am still impressed, I have to admit.  But I am no longer convinced that this is a good idea.  4000 lotus stalks for a small scarf?

Something is wrong with this picture.