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  • Writer's pictureEvelyn Roberts

Myanmar, India

January, 2006

As a reward to myself after completing my first Astrology in Bali Workshop, I took six weeks to go traveling in Myanmar (Burma) and India. I spent the first 3 weeks alone and my sweetheart John joined me for the last 3+.

Again what to say? I could write a small book on each leg of the journey. It started in Bangkok with the interminable quest for visas (Myanmar and a new Indonesian one). The one for Myanmar being a trial unto itself. They only give 50 out a day, and only 20 of those can actually get it the same day. I found this out on my 2nd fruitless trip there, the 1st failed attempt being because they were closed for the full moon (which it wasn’t, as an astrologer I found this most confusing, but arguing the point with them didn't help). Anyway long story short(ish), I eventually managed to get it by camping outside the embassy on the pavement at 6am, and then storming the counter (with hordes of others) when it finally opened at 9am.

My time in Bangkok was made much sweeter through an unplanned, synchronistic meeting with one of my scholarship recipients (Ian) from the December workshop. We ran into each other in an obscure little nondescript cheapo restaurant on a Bangkok backstreet (called the Moon Cafe however). So he and I got to spend some great time together, mull over the workshop, and really become friends.

Then I flew to Yangon (previously Rangoon).

Nothing had prepared me for Myanmar (the name Burma is a misnomer pegged by the colonialists through laziness, and they don't like it). I'd read a lot and always wanted to visit, despite the fact that it is a political nightmare. And it truly is, as a tourist you can't even go to many parts of the country because of insurgents (and repression and other vile things no doubt) etc. And the people are very nervous about talking politics because they are under a military dictatorship, and punished severely for talking down the 'bastards'. Freedom of speech anyone?

Having said that these are some of the warmest, kindest people I have ever met, along with the Balinese of course. The truth that you cannot judge a people by their government is proven to me time and time again. The people of Myanmar have a unique kind of innocence because they are largely unexposed to western values (or perhaps lack of), or all our superfluous 'stuff'. And an irony is that this country, with all it's dark truths, now has a very special place in my heart and has succeeded in making me feel far more at home in this world - go figure?

And the comfort that comes to me from traveling is one of the reasons I want (need?) to explore the world. I have to see it all for myself, because then it all starts to feel like home (Moon/Jupiter in the 4th for my astro buds), and this gives me more of a sense of security than anything else. No matter what you hear or read, the reality usually bears little or no resemblance to what you conjure up in your mind through the (naturally) biased reports of others.

Tourists aren't a common sight so there is a lot of curiosity and people often come running out of their houses to look at you, but always with waves and smiles and great generosity. They seem untainted by consumerism (they are very, very poor), or any kind of greed, there simply isn't much around to covet. I don't think I've ever felt safer anywhere. I took long bus trips where I was the only foreigner, and people were very caring without wanting a single thing in return. In many situations I knew I could leave everything I owned unattended and it wouldn't be touched. And of course, it is a Buddhist country.

There is controversy as to whether it is good or bad to visit this country. Aung San Suu Kyi (the Nobel laureate who has been under house arrest for so long) recommends people not go. However you can be there and vigilant about not supporting government hotels, stores, airlines etc, and the people are very grateful for the tourist revenue and the fact that they, their country and its beauty, are appreciated.

The Internet there could leave you screaming or weeping (I experienced both), the government blocks many web-sites, and although there are ways to break through.. it would sometimes take a half hour to send one email.... and the whole system would frequently crash completely halfway through the process.

I was 'adopted' by a Buddhist monk in Yangon who literally picked me up in a temple and then escorted me all around the sites. It was very kind of him, but part of his motivation was practicing his English, and it can get rather exhausting when someone chatters continuously in English with pronunciation so bad that you can only understand one word in ten. He got an A for trying, I got an F for intolerance, but since it was a buddhistic experience I'll be compassionate to myself and take an extracurricular C for not showing my true sentiments.

My 1st (only) night in Yangon was spent projectile vomiting (and the rest), with what felt like a vice grip around my head, and the receptionist in my hotel was an angel, stroking my head and forcing fluids down me. I can be a little smug about what a 'hearty, hardy' traveler I am, so I had a rather harsh reminder that maybe it takes being in a country more than 45 minutes to build antibodies, and it isn't advisable to eat street food the minute you hit the tarmac. I started imagining dengue fever, bird flu and malaria - because I had every single symptom of them all.

So what do you do after a night like that? Of course you get on a bus for 16 harrowing hours (how was I to know there are no actual roads in Myanmar, just dusty, pot-holed trails). I really do never learn, but I suppose if I did I wouldn't do many of things I do, but it was one of the most uncomfortable, bone rattling journeys I've taken in recent memory. I think I'm still clearing the dust of Myanmar out of my lungs. I might be exaggerating, but not by much, there would be very occasional patches of paved road, but they certainly weren't the rule.

My reward was arriving in Bagan. Literally 100's of ancient stupas and temples of all sizes, many of them red brick or painted gold (sunrises and sunsets to die for). Archeologically one of the wonders of Asia. I rented a bike and spent days exploring, and at dawn one day I went to a special festival market, coming through the mist it was breath-taking and must have been exactly the same as it was a thousand years ago. The clothes, the bullock carts, all the temples; everything. It was one of those sights you never, ever forget, which is just as well since I am a camera free zone (much to the chagrin of many of you).

Next I took a minivan with some other people to Inle Lake (supposedly a 7hr trip, but in truth 11). The idea was that it might be more comfortable than the bus... wrong. The only advantage was being able to stop and shake the dust off whenever you wanted. And again there was a spectacular reward. Inle is a 35km long lake, with a whole world on and around it. Floating gardens, floating markets, and for $10 you can hire a boat and a driver to explore everywhere. I also took a guide for the day and went hiking to some of the more remote villages. It is spectacularly beautiful and unspoiled.

Inle is where John met me. The arrival of 'the trader' suddenly changed the trip (in only good ways). I have (or should I say had...) an allergy to shopping, and this man makes part of his living picking up artefacts, antiques and treasures from around the world (besides being an incredibly talented craftsman/jeweller), and he knows all the tricks of the trade and where to go. We were immediately taking boats down tucked away little waterways to people's homes, and they were digging things out of dusty old chests. Even I find this a fascinating way to shop!

We then flew to Mandalay (John had been to Myanmar before and was not about to get on a bus). I now understand why I kept hearing people say 'the best thing about Mandalay is the name'. It was probably the least interesting place in the country, just another vast, unbelievably dusty city, again pretty much unpaved. There really aren't that many vehicles, at least not relative to other countries, so it's pretty pain free getting around. This is a bit of a relief, especially after Bangkok. Also the majority of vehicles are white, when I queried a taxi driver about this he told me it was because white is the only paint colour available for touching up dents (so I'm assuming a sign of wealth would be having a coloured car).

The most common mode of transport is bicycle rickshaws, and they haul 2 people on each. The drivers are incredibly wiry and thin, not surprising when they have to haul the combined 300+lbs of the likes of John and I around - for a mere pittance to boot. We did make the most of our time there and went to the Jade Market (apparently they have the best in the world), and of course John ferreted out all the best antique shops.

I had my birthday in Mandalay. John had come armed with about 10 lbs of dark chocolate from Trader Joe's so I was very happy! The food in Myanmar is laced with MSG (interminable itching and sleepless nights for those of us not used to it), so we always ate at Indian restaurants. And this might be a part of the reason why subliminally we made the decision to head for India. So I applied for my visa at the embassy in Mandalay, John goes to India yearly so already had a multi entry. It is really fun being with a man as spontaneous in his travel habits as I am (he is also as wilful and determined as me… scary, but we're never bored!). What I admire about John the most is that he really and truly lives his dream, and always has. And I may be a little biased, since those dreams aren't dissimilar from my own - a creative life exploring the world.

We had to wait 5 days for the Indian Embassy to find out if I was a wanted felon, so headed for the small town of Maymyo. Another amazing place. It's where they grow all the flowers, and climate and scenery-wise it is a lot like Santa Barbara (but no ocean). What's really fascinating is that it is also like an Asian wild west town. The taxis are horse and carriages (a remnant of Victorian colonial times), but they are painted in primary colours and driven by the wildest looking characters. Many of the people in the area are of Nepalese heritage, the British brought Gurkhas here because of their fighting skills, and they simply never went home again, in truth probably weren't able to. So there is a larger Hindu and Muslim, (not sure where they came from), population around Maymyo.

We rented bikes, (which were as funky as the carriages), and went to wonderful waterfalls, markets, and every single antique shop that could be found. Myanmar is almost ridiculously cheap, and in this wondrous, exotically quaint town we experienced the topper. We went to a little Indian restaurant and the bill came to 60c for both of us, in an all you can eat situation. They do charge foreigners special rates for being anywhere vaguely historical, and airfares are higher for us. I changed $100 bill when I arrived in the country and was in awe at how my little wad of cash never appeared to get smaller, it seemed to last forever. However knowing that the average wage in Bali is $3 a day, I don't even want to think about what it is in Myanmar.

We went back to Mandalay, picked up my passport, (the Indians determined I wasn't a felon), and took a boat at dawn down the Irrawaddy river to Bagan. The whole 12 hour trip was breathtaking; temples, monasteries and a whole different view of the country. We then flew from Bagan back to Yangon (didn't go into the city at all) and straight back to Bangkok. It is practically impossible to go west into India from Myanmar, tourists can't cross any of the borders, or even go to many of those remote regions.

We were literally in and out of Bangkok in less than 24 hours, enough time for John to mail his latest 'spoils' home and to eat some fantastic Thai food. I had not been to India for about 12 years, although it's always been a great love of mine, it seems there are always too many other places still to see. I don't know if it's changed, or whether I have, but this time travelling there felt easier and gentler to me. Of course Delhi is still a teeming mass of extremes and chaos, and I know there are definitely more, not less, people now.

We headed straight for Jaipur, on an extremely nice AC bus on real, actual paved roads. I never thought there'd be a day when I would think of India as highly civilised in it's amenities! For my astrology friends, my very 1st trip to India was for my 40th birthday with Saturn on my Sun, lo and behold I return with the exact opposition to my Sun. And India was not originally a part of my travel plans for this year... aha, and we think we're running the show?

John had been telling me about this great hotel in Jaipur, and it turned out to be the exact same one I stayed in 14 years earlier - just a little dejavue-ish. Rajasthan is incredibly mysterious, mystical, colourful, exotic - you can't use enough of those words to describe it. In 20 years of buying there John has all these great contacts, and there was lots of going down dark alleys and through unmarked doorways to these amazing tiny places full of treasures. They keep plying you with delicious spicy chai until your heart is leaping out of your body, (I had to go cold turkey on day 2), and bringing out more and more beautiful gems and sometimes incredible pure oils.

I fell under the spell, how could I not be intoxicated? And as we all know intoxication breaks down the defences, so yes I burned some rather serious rubber on my CC, (no they don't have a sign out front, but yes they take visa cards). And in truth I bought some incredibly beautiful things that my very clever daughter is going to help me sell on eBay (once I have wrestled her to the ground and pried them out of her hands!). And I do believe this could be yet another way to support my travel addiction. Compared to John I was incredibly conservative, but it is his business. I even had to go back to some of these places and get some shiny things that were haunting and taunting my dreams - it's a slippery slope. I know the prices were great, and I had my experienced advisor on hand. Although sometimes I completely ignored his advise… surprise, surprise.

From Jaipur we went to Pushkar, a very small desert town on a tiny lake, that is famous for it's yearly camel fair and as a place for pilgrimages. It is even prettier and more exotic than Jaipur, and John described it perfectly, it is the 'Kathmandu of India'. Lots of very young foreign hippies with dreadlocks and the likes, and looking very much like we did 30 odd years ago (in truth they're not very original in their style, apart from all those piercing). Being a place for Holy Pilgrimages you can't buy meat or alcohol anywhere in Pushkar, you can however get 'bang lassis' on any street corner. These are fermented yoghurt and marijuana shakes. I did not partake, otherwise I might still to this day be wandering round and round that lovely little lake, mesmerised by the camels and beautifully painted elephants.

We then made another sojourn back to Jaipur with plans to head to Goa, or some other beach. It is a problem in India that they charge tourists ludicrously high prices for internal flights, prohibitively so and it is even more expensive than in the US, and while we were there there was much talk of changing this very unfair, prohibitive practice. We didn't have too much time so a 2 day bus/train trip was not feasible (or appealing), so we headed further south in Rajasthan, and the real heartland of India, to Udaipur. It was still a 9 hr journey, but we took a sleeper train, and for some reason I love these.

Sleeping on a train for me is like sleeping in the rain - very soothing. And so we arrived in yet another ancient beautiful city, Udaipur. Again on a lake, this one much larger and surrounded with palaces (and even two in the middle of the lake). It would have been nice to stay somewhere overlooking the lake, but since we arrived early in the morning we ended up at the 'Baba Palace' in the center of the town. We had another amazing time here, and John knew it was where they make the swords and knives he loves so much, and he was soon spending lots of time with a man whose family had been making them for 500 years.

I must admit I was a little peeved at being in a noisy hotel when there were so many idyllic ones close by. We were directly opposite a Vishnu temple, with a tiny square in front of it, and we could see right into it from our 3rd storey room. The bells and chanting began at 5am and went on periodically until 10pm. I soon realised what a gift I'd been given, I could sit in a corner of the window and observe without being seen myself (not an easy feat as those of you who have been to India can attest to). I just watched for hours and hours. The teeming life of India is fascinating, e.g.; Sadhus (Holy men) who had their homes on the steps of the temple, and the little 10 year old homeless/parentless boy who owned one blanket and a broom, he would immaculately clean his little corner every night before going to sleep, then get up and beg all day, hopefully get enough food to survive, and then do it all again.

Then one night there was a huge commotion, and suddenly there was a wedding party stopped in the square, music, dancing, fireworks, unbelievable colours, the groom on his white horse. Another medieval scene, apart from the portable electric chandeliers being carried and powered by a generator being pulled at the end of the procession! Elephants, camels, cows, rickshaws and an endless colourful mass of humanity was forever milling around those temple steps.

It seems India is a country you love or hate, and I love it. It never ceases to amaze me how, amongst the chaos and suffering, an incredible beauty and passion for life persists more intensely than anywhere else I've ever been. No matter how people struggle and suffer, from what I can see on the surface nobody appears depressed, they are too busy surviving. I've always wondered if depression isn't a luxury you can only afford when you have enough to eat? Of course depression is very real and devastating, and I say this as an observation and not a judgment, and of course I would never ascribe to the whole world going the way of India. I get to observe and leave, so I have only an abstract idea of what it is like to really be from there.

And 'Evelyn as an Indian woman'... we won't even go into what a nightmare that would be. Anyway, Udaipur was fantastic, but then we had to head back to Delhi, on another train. We were a little suspicious that our tickets were only $8 for a 13 hour journey. We soon found out why, but it was the only train so there really wasn't a choice. As John described it; ‘it was like sleeping in a petri dish'. Yikes, and this time we didn't get blankets, so it was a case of putting as many clothes between you and your narrow little (filthy) plastic bench/bed as possible. It was a bit of a creepy, cold sleepless night, but we survived and got to see the endless slums of Delhi as the train moved slowly through the suburbs from dawn on. Very sobering, and a reality hit raw enough to halt any complaints about our own trivial and temporary suffering.

We were at the point where we'd had just a few too many curries (it is my favourite food so this is saying a lot), but we actually found a TGIF in Delhi and had fish and chips. Went to the Red Fort, did more shopping, but from then on we pretty much zipped back to Bangkok ( more shipping for John), and onto another plane and back to Bali. Ahh.

It was an incredibly enriching, enlightening, educational 6 weeks, but I am very happy to be back in my beautiful little house in the rice fields. The plants are full grown and it is harvest time. The women are threshing the rice, and it seems to be a full time job keeping the birds away. There are flags, clappers and anti-bird yells and yowls galore. The rainy season is slowing down but we are still having some fantastic lightening storms. As one of my dear friends noted, I am managing to have an 'Endless Summer', and it is suiting me just fine. Thank you very much!


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