Why do you travel?

IMG_8595Was the question my kayaking partner asked me while rowing somewhere near Cat Ba island, in Northern Vietnam. I stayed quiet and he asked again “Rita, why do you travel? What’s your reason for it?”

I was in the back seat and he couldn’t see my face – my eyes going from side to side, trying to look inside my brain in search for something to say. From me he only got a long silence before “That’s a good question! I don’t really know…”

I was honest. I never really thought about the reason behind it. Traveling for me has always been something natural. I blame it on my Spanish-gypsy blood. For my family the idea of a perfect vacation involves driving as many kilometers as possible in whatever number of days you have off – 3 days, 3 months, 3 years.

As we continued rowing I asked myself “To visit different places and cultures?  To see different landscapes? To try different food? Have new experiences? Meet new people?” “I don’t know”, I said again. And I really didn’t.

For many weeks, the question was stuck in my mind. I started asking people around me, they had different reasons, and I still couldn’t find mine. Until one day, I was driving amongst limestone walls and appreciating the changing colors of a pre-sunset sky, and voilà: I travel because it makes me experience today. Because traveling keeps me in the present.

Traveling allows me to live, experience, and focus on the present as I’ve never done before.

How much time I have spent thinking about the past! Things I’ve done or said, things I haven’t, things I should or could have done differently.

How much time I have spent thinking about the future! What am I going to do? Where am I going to be? Past relationships based on “let me see how you’re going to be next so I can decide if you’re good for me or not” made me waste so much present time, always waiting for something better, for a future that never came.

We tend to spend so much time thinking about the past and the future, that we live the present as a transition point, not as the present. We don’t really pay attention to what we are doing now because we are not embracing now.

Traveling I found a way of living the present, one day at a time.

People ask me what my days are like. I wake up, have a shower, decide what I’m having for breakfast and how I want to spend my day. Sightseeing, working, writing, just walking around or laying in a hammock. I make a decision and enjoy it. If I decide to do some work I know I’m choosing to spend a couple of hours in front of the computer instead of seeing waterfalls or caves, or moving to another place. I make the decision and embrace it. I don’t judge myself for doing “nothing” in a city with so many things to do and see. Sometimes all I need is “nothing”, sometimes I feel like taking a local bus and spending hours on bumpy winding roads just to get somewhere new, where I can wake up and decide how I want to spend my day, all over again.

Off course I think about the future. Where am I going from here? What am I going to do with all the new things I’m learning from this incredible journey.  But I do not focus only on the future. Traveling forces me to make present decisions.

One might think “Oh, it’s easy for you, you’re living the life, meeting new people, seeing new places. You’re not stuck in an office five days a week.” Yes, I’m not, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have a routine and daily rituals. Doesn’t mean I don’t question my decisions or have doubts about them. But the way my decision making process works is based on the present.

When I meet new people I let myself appreciate and enjoy the short or long conversations I have with them, people I’ll probably never see again. I allow myself to be present, to appreciate the moment.

Same applies to watching the changes in landscape. No pictures can capture the beauty of noticing the changes of scenery from one place to another, from mountains to valleys, from rivers to the sea, from cold breeze to a steam hot air. If I don’t allow myself to feel it, how will I ever be able to talk about it?

Why do I travel? To live the present so in the future I can tell stories about my past.

Why do you travel?

 

“There are only two days in the year when nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live.”

(Dalai Lama)

A Love Letter*

 

[Thakhek – March 06, 2017]

Before meeting you, I was told you were nice but not worth the time to get to know you better. Two or three weeks should be enough before getting tired of you and moving on.

I had plans to go back to something else  as soon as I was done with you. But here I am, still looking at you, appreciating your beauty. Completely in love.

It’s been two months and you still amaze – and amuse – me with your colors, shapes, smells, and flavors. You keep me curious and eager to learn more about your history, your people, your fears, and challenges. Tell me: how can I help you? How can we work together? What do I need to do to stay close to you?

People who know me are saying I look great. That my eyes are shining and my smile is wider. They say I irradiate happiness and although it’s not only your fault – I’m happy because I feel I’m in the right place for my body, mind and soul – you do have a lot to do with it.

You helped me reconnect with an old passion: weaving; showing me beautiful and inspiring work made in remote places by very talented people.

You also taught me to be more relaxed, go with the flow, and even break some rules once in a while. You made me try new things and experiment more.

You gave me lovers, and love.

You made me feel years younger, despite becoming a year older while with you.

Up in the mountains, in the North, you showed me breathtaking views, while playing hide and seek during the sunset.

Heading South, I realized how diverse you could be. The mountains gave space to plains, the cool breeze to heat waves, and when I thought I could no longer breath, you pointed me fresh waters to bath in. And then something else to love: the Mekong ❤

How not to love you?! – For your hammocks, khao niao, your caves, and canoes, and waterfalls. You surprised me with Indian food, Japanese Cafe, petanque & pastis.

You surprised me even more with your winding roads that – despite my lifelong history of car sickness – kept me sane and safe.

You also made me cry and gave me a few new scars. Learning about your bombs and fears was very touching; I couldn’t hold my tears.

But most importantly, you presented me with new friends, new inspirations, and new stories to tell.

Stories about people, places, feelings.

Stories about love.

 

*To Laos

Travel Notes – Vietnam

In 4 weeks in Vietnam I experienced different ways of traveling.

First I had the company of a very good friend who decided to spend her holidays with me – well, actually she decided to spend her holidays in SE Asia and I happen to be here, but it’s nice to think the other way around. Because she only had 25 days and wanted to visit Cambodia (travel notes here) and Vietnam. The first two weeks were a bit rushed – 2 days here, 3 days there, and a lot of long distance traveling. Still, it was completely worth it and enough to surprise me in a very positive way. The first part of these notes covers the first half of my Vietnam trip, from Ho Chi Ming to Hanoi. The second part (coming soon) covers Christmas in Hanoi, climbing in Cat Ba island, and falling in love with the landscape in the northern part of the country.

Part I

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Citadel, Hanoi

First, I need to confess I wasn’t very excited about traveling to Vietnam. Not that I’ve never thought about it – it’s actually on =e item of my bucket list to do a bicycle trip in Vietnam. Now I want to do it even more. I’m glad she insisted this was the one country she really wanted to see and we ended up taking the bus with Mekong Express from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Ming City (Saigon).

Wow! Saigon is… Saigon. I mean, tons of motorcycles everywhere. And by everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE! On the streets, on the sidewalks, on pedestrian crossings, inside stores. There’s no such thing as looking left or right when crossing a street in Saigon. You have to look all sides, many times, and look again. Oh, wait! AGAIN! I stopped at a crossroad and took a 2 minutes video with non-stopping traffic, 99.9% two-wheels vehicles.

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Vietnamese breakfast!

On my first morning in Vietnam I had Pho Bo for breakfast.My first Pho ever was at a Vietnamese restaurant in the US and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to finally try it in Vietnam. I was not disappointed. During the next four weeks I had Pho for breakfast, lunch, dinner. And I’m proud to say that my first breakfast in Vietnam was a delicious Pho accompanied by Vietnamese iced coffee. Yummy!

In Saigon we walked, walked, walked. To the train station, to the Cathedral, to the Post Office, to the War Remnants Museum. The latter, by the way, is a very interesting place to visit. The museum tells the story of the Vietnam War from the lenses of the East. It’s a very impactful and sometimes disturbing place, with war pictures I could not look at. It was super interesting to learn about history from a perspective that is not widely publicized in the West. I highly recommend a visit to the Museum.

On our second night in Saigon we had to change hostels and by chance ended up finding the brand new “Cozy House 160”, very good price with delicious breakfast (plenty of fruits included).

From noisy and busy but delightful Saigon we got on a train to Da Nang and from there a bus to Hoi An. The train ticket cost 623k VND on Soft Seat coach – there are sleeper options for a higher price. The soft seats were pretty comfortable for an overnight in our opinion. From Da Nang to Hoi An there is a local bus (#1) and it costs 20k VND. The ticket collector will try to charge you more and because we knew that I had the exact amount with me plus 5k VND just in case. When he passed collecting the money I handed him 40k and he asked for 40k more “20 for each bag” he said. We said “no way” and despite the pressure we did not surrender and he ended up accepting 45k. Tip for those planning to take that bus: pay attention to what locals pay, have exact change, and a little extra if you feel like paying a bit more. I guess in the end it all depends on your travel budget and willingness to corroborate with this kind of practice.

Bus ride from Da Nang to Hoi An takes approximately 1 hour.

Hoi An is cute little historic town recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Hoi An was an important trading port in the Southeast Asian region from the 15th to the 19th century, and its architecture shows strong influences of the Japanese and the Chinese.

During the 3 days we spent there we bikes to the beach – to reaffirm my certainty that there are no beaches like in Brazil, we walked and walked around the old quarters full of yellow houses, shops, restaurants and cafes, and saw (and bought) beautiful handmade scarfs.

I want to say Hoi An is a place not to be missed. It’s charming, it’s architecture is beautiful, but it is pretty touristic, and by that I mean, shops, restaurants, cafes, shops, restaurants, cafes. We didn’t have enough time to get off the beaten path, and I’m sure there are plenty of tiny alleys to explore.

Ah, I was almost forgetting! Hoi An is known by having amazing tailors. People from all over the world go to Hoi An to have their clothes tailor made. Not only clothes but leather shoes too. We didn’t get anything tailor made there but met a few people who did and were pretty happy with the quality and price.

A few tips if going to Hoi An:

Bus Da Nang > Hoi An (read above)

Bicycles on the beach: we were charged 10k VND to park our bicycles near the beach. We were told bicycles were not allowed… we even had someone blowing a whistle at me. The trick is to go around and access the beach from another point. We saw plenty of people walking their bikes on the beach.

There’s a fee to enter Hoi An Old Town. Well, apparently there is a fee but how compulsory it is is debatable. We paid the 120k VND at one of the check points, however there were a lot of people coming and going without showing tickets and depending on the checkpoint there was nobody really checking. Again, it’s up to you to pay it or not. If you believe it’s benefiting the town, go for it.

Don’t forget to try the Banh Minh sandwich at the Chef’s restaurant. It’s a bit more expensive than the ones you find on the streets, but it’s delicious!!!! And the view from the rooftop is great. Totally worth going out of my gluten-free diet.

If you appreciate handmade scarfs – like I do – check out Viethands’ (12 Bach Dang) scarfs. Beautiful work with silk, cotton and linen.

From Hoi An we took a bus to Hue (USD 6), another historic Vietnamese town with ruins from the palace where the Nguyen dynasty emperors lived and was also the national capital from 1802-1945. It was the first time in Vietnam that we had heavy rain. A lot of rain. So much that we had to wait for a few hours before taking a walk around the city. By the time we left the hotel we were starving! So we headed to the market hoping to find some delicious local food. Well… not this time. I won’t go into details on what I saw there – my travel partner knows – but for the first time since I started traveling and eating in local places I was the one asking to leave because I wouldn’t eat anything there. We went to the big supermarket next door.

Things to do in Hue include the Citadel (150k VND) where the Imperial City used to be, as well as the Forbidden Purple City, the emperor’s home. There are also a couple of other places to see and visit, including tour on the Perfume River, but we only saw the Citadel this time.

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Rainy Hue

The hotel where we stayed was one of the best in Vietnam. The location is also great with a couple of good restaurants a few steps away.

At our hotel we bought a bus ticket to Ninh Binh (200k VND). The bus ride started with the wrong foot. I did not know about the apparently common rudeness of bus service towards foreigners in Vietnam. After a smooth train ride from Saigon to Da Nang, including onboard service during the whole trip, I was not expecting the treatment we received on the way to Ninh Binh. I explain: despite being half empty, the driver sent us to the back of the bus. I asked if we could stay in the front because we didn’t want to stay close to the toilet and we were getting off before most people. If I can recall correctly, I was pretty polite when I asked him, who replied shouting at me something like “go to the back or get off”; I asked why and he just shouted “get off” and ordered someone outside to take my bag out of the trunk. Seriously, I was paralyzed. What have I done to piss him off to that level? No idea. But later, talking to other foreigners I found out it was not an isolated incident, and it’s more common than we think.

Also after that, Livia and I were quite concerned with being yielded at by angry Vietnamese men. From that moment on I can say we started to read all the signs two, three, four times – even though we had no idea what they were saying.

The ride to Ninh Binh was very unpleasant: the initial stress + infinite horns + a driver who smoked one cigarette after the other [thanks for sending us to the back – at the end], that we did not bother getting off in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning.[1] We started walking and at the end of the street we arrived at the Ninh Binh hostel [check name!] where a kind security guard allowed us in and showed us couches + blankets where we were finally able to rest.

In Ninh Binh we rented a bike and drove around the region. The landscape is very scenic, as it is in the whole country with huge limestone formations,  a lot of green, and charming roads.We could had explored more, but honestly we were tired and didn’t enjoy Ninh Binh as we could have. One thing that tired me about Vietnam in general is having to pay to see everything. I had an expectation that in Ninh Binh we could explore the area without having people running after us asking for money or charging to park, to look, to whatever. Or maybe we were just tired and wanted to stay in one place longer.

For whatever reason, we decided to go to Hanoi earlier and spend Christmas there. After making sure the hostel would give us the night we had already paid back, and confirming a place to stay in Hanoi, we rushed to the train station and were able to buy a ticket for the 1pm train. And so we left Ninh Binh towards Hanoi.

[1] When buying the ticket we were told the bus would arrive in the morning… “around 6am”… ahn ahn…

Travel notes – Cambodia

I made my way to Cambodia from Bangkok, where I met a friend who came to SE Asia to spend her vacation with me. We took a flight in BKK and landed in Siem Reap 50 minutes later (Nok Air, USD55). It’s possible to do it by bus or train, you just need to be aware of the visa and border-crossing scams at the border. More about Poipet famous’ scams here. Because we spent more time in Bangkok than previously planned[i], the flight seemed a better option for us.

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Siem Reap is a lively city with its economy based on the tourism around Angkor Wat. It’s quite busy, but nothing compared to Bangkok. Despite being pretty touristy, it’s the #1 “must visit” place in Cambodia, and I’d add, in SE Asia. Lonely Planet features Angkor Wat as #1 travel destination, and most people go to Cambodia only because of the temples. That (temples, not LP) was also the main reason we wanted to visit Cambodia.

We spent 4 days there. First day was a rest day – to recover from all the walking around Bangkok and to plan our visit to the temples. The ticket is not cheap and there’s talk around town that it will increase significantly in 2017. In December 2016 it cost USD20/1day and USD40/3days. I don’t think 1 day is enough to see everything.

We visited most of the temples in Angkor complex + three others located 30-40km away from the city. We were speechless most of the time. Personally, I’m not sure if I found Bagan more impactful. The style is very different and I keep thinking whether it would change my impression if I had visited Angkor Wat first. I really don’t know. Still, there were moments where my jaw would literally drop.

Ta Phrom, for example, is magical. All those trees hugging the ruins in such a delicate way, as if they were put there at the same time. The silence… well, silence until the arrival of hordes of Chinese – IMPORTANT: get there as early as possible! And don’t stress too much about the Chinese. They do outnumber everyone else and stressing about their loudness, selfie-sticks, and lack of “simancol” won’t change the way they behave and will just ruin your day.

We chose to do the long circuit first (on our 2nd day) and leave the short circuit, which include Angkor Wat, for the following day. On the 3rd day we visit the Lady Temple, a tiny but extremely impressive building with incredible details everywhere you look. So delicate and so powerful at the same time.

Siem Reap is definitely more expensive than other places in the country. If you get there from outside the country, you might have an impression that things are pretty cheap. Hold your consuming impulses though and buy your scarfs in Battambang or Phnom Penh instead.

You can visit the temples by bycicle, motorbike, tuk tuk, car/van/bus, but we didn’t even consider the latter. It’s a great feeling to feel the wind in your face while moving from one temple to another – and it’s also a nice way to recharge and get ready for more walking around ruins.

We found a nice tuk tuk driver and decided to stick with him during our stay. It was great. He had a really good vibe. He was so nice that – our mistake – we didn’t realize he was adding things to what was agreed and would charge for it later. So, as a piece of advice, you don’t need to change drivers if you like the first one, but don’t forget to agree on the price before you leave for the day and ask him over and over again if what he’s suggesting is included in the previous agreement. I know, I know, very basic thing, won’t happen again (so I hope).

Food: we rediscovered the meaning of “fresh fruit juice” with creamy and incredibly tasty smoothies for USD1. *** avocado + passionfruit is an awesome combination! I also loved Nom Krok, a rice-coconut pancake (gluten-free!) that you find everywhere.

Before heading to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, we decided to visit Battambang. Capitol Tours sells tickets for USD4.5 if you buy at their office (~1km from the old market). Hotels sell it for USD6-8. Important: call to confirm pick up from your hotel if you buy the ticket directly with the company. They “forgot” us and we heard it was not the first time it happened. Luckily our host called them and thanks to the delayed departure we were still able to catch it.

Battambang is the 2nd largest city in Cambodia but it feels like a small town in the countryside. It was founded in the 11th century by the Khmer empire.

It was a nice surprise after busy Siem Reap and before even busier Phnom Penh. In Battambang we rented a bike and rode along the river. Every kid in town would wave to us and say hello. When passing in front of a school where kids were going home we almost caused an accident because they’d look at us instead of at the traffic!

“Hello, bye-bye” was our motto in Battambamg.

Food: Domlong An or Noum Domlong Barang. Delicious sweet potato cakes for only 500 riel (USD 0.12)

From Battambang we took a bus (USD5) to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, situated on the Mekong River bank.

It was the first time we were shocked with the traffic and amount of motorcycles (it was certainly an anticipation to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon in Vietnam, but that’s another post…). It was also the first time we hated the place where we stayed and maybe it influenced the way we visited the city. Yes, there were better options but they were also more expensive; we just stayed out for as long as we could so we’d fall sleep as soon as possible.

The Royal Palace (USD6.50 > price will increase to USD10 in January 2017) deserves a visit according to Livia. I didn’t go inside but she loved – and I trust her, so you should go 🙂

On our last day in Phnom Penh we rented a bike and drove to Choeung Ek (USD6), a killing field during the Khmer Rouge regime, in the 1970s. It’s a very disturbing place. I felt a peaceful atmosphere in the area but then, listening to the stories of atrocities that happened there… it’s so sad to realize what the human being is capable of. It was the first place in Cambodia where I witnessed total silence among visitors (including the Chinese!).

From Phnom Penh we bought a bus ticket with Mekong Express to Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, for USD12. The trip took us about 7 hours.

It was a short visit to Cambodia and I’m sure there are many other interesting things to do there. What we could notice is that people are extremely friendly, food is similar to Thai food in many ways, and the Khmer culture is present everywhere we visited. For next time we’d love to visit the mountains and the coast. One more thing for next time… I guess I’m never leaving SE Asia 😉

 

PS-You can pay pretty much everything in American Dollars throughout Cambodia.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Because I had to get my visa to Vietnam and thought that it would be easier at the Vietnamese Embassy in BKK – oh, make laugh! First I tried in Yangon, Myanmar, and they wanted to charge USD70 for the visa. I knew it should be cheaper so I tried BKK… but no. They wanted to charge me USD61. I ended up getting my visa in Siem Reap, Cambodia, through an agency recommended by the guesthouse where we stayed. I paid USD41 and got the visa on the same day. I had no problems getting into Vietnam with it.

The uncertainties of the world

[leia em Português]

Mawlamyine, Myanmar – November 26, 2016

Or should it be a world of uncertainties?

Two months ago I was boarding a plane in Boston to SE Asia not knowing what my itinerary was going to be.

Twenty days ago I arrived in Myanmar anxious to travel around this unknown and fascinating country.

Two days later it was election day in the USA.

The day after, my excitement gave way to disbelief. I remained speechless as I followed the results minute-by-minute from one of the few places where you can find good internet connection in Yangon.

I’m sorry for bringing this up but I need to make a parenthesis before continuing on my adventures.

I’m sure you are upset and tired of reading about Trump. I understand. It doesn’t look good and it isn’t getting any better as days go by. But I can’t help myself. It was too much of a shock to see one more of The Simpsons’ prophecies coming to life.

I’m no political analyst and have no intention whatsoever in becoming one. What I really enjoy are anthropological studies – a fancy way I call “people watching” – and I apologize in advance to my American friends for my honesty – maybe bluntness – here. But I must say I find it an intriguing phenomena that the next US president is a showman.

For me it is quite a natural process for a country where you have TVs everywhere. TVs and hundreds of TV channels – who really watches all those channels? For me it’s an expected election result for a country that judges electoral debates based on the way candidates interact with the cameras, how they articulate words more than ideas and policies, on the color of their ties or blazers. A country where reality shows cover pretty much every topic you can imagine, and where the Kardashians are the example of success to be followed.

I’m sorry my dear American friends… But I can only say I saw it coming that a reality show host becomes your president.

And I really feel for you; I feel for your country I learned to love; I feel for Jack and Sophie, for Yara’s nephews and nieces, for all the kids that have to live not only through a Trump presidency, but who will have to fix what he’s going to leave behind after four – hopefully only four – years in the Oval Office.

I truly hope that after this shocking result people realize that reality shows actually have scripts, that there’s some kind of control behind the scenes – even if it’s only to decide what scenes are going to be aired.

Trump on the presidency, on the other hand, is a free rider. The future of the USA and the world is completely uncertain right now. The direction it’s pointing doesn’t look good from where I’m standing.

*

Enough about the uncertainties of a superpower and the world it influences. Let’s talk about Myanmar and the beauties and challenges of a country in transition, where the future is as uncertain as the USA.

Myanmar is a country at a crossroad. I looked for a better description, but couldn’t find one. It is a country with full potential to develop economically, socially, and politically in a positive way, but struggling to deal with what was left from decades of military dictatorship and young and fragile democracy.[i]

In twenty days I visited the lively cities of Yangon and Mandalay; Kachin’ state capital Myitkyina; hills and villages between Kalaw and Inle Lake; breathtaking Bagan; and George Orwell’s Mawlamyine.

I didn’t follow a logical itinerary; instead I planned according to friends’ schedules. After all, how cool is it to visit a region with your local friend? Or attend a traditional Burmese wedding of another friend’s colleague? This time I preferred to go where friends were, even if it meant a lot of long-distance and time consuming traveling from one place to another, as well as shorter periods of time in each place.

It also means I have quite an extensive list of places to go for my next time in Myanmar: Putao on the very north of Kachin, looking at the Eastern Himalayas; Sittwe and other parts of Rakhine state, region struggling with ethnic and religious conflict; Naypidaw, the ghost-town capital and surroundings; Dawei, the southern coastline and border with Thailand. So many places to be seen that I’ll have to come back soon 😉

Myanmar is definitely a place to visit. It’s changing and it’s changing fast. I wish it changes for the better, although some people I’ve talked to are not as optimistic as they were right after the election last year.

People here look beautiful in their longyis. I love, LOVE men in longyis! How charming they look! The women are super elegant, always matching the colors of their long tube skirts with their tops. I can’t recall seeing obese people even though food is pretty oily. I was told oil is a sign of wealth in Burmese culture. My tummy complained, still no obesity.

The landscape reminds me a lot of Brazil. All the way from Mandalay to Bagan, and from Bagan to Yangon, I was transported to the Cerrado and its veredas. Cities like Yangon, Mandalay, and in a smaller scale Myiktyina reminded me of Northern Brazil and places like Manaus, Belém and Fortaleza. Street dogs, just like in Thailand, the lack of sidewalks, and drivers that speed instead of stopping when they see you trying to cross a busy road also brought me memories of my home country.

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Sun rising in Bagan

Nevertheless, people here are as welcoming as Brazilians, if not more. When not too shy they’d greet me with beautiful smiles, return my “mingalabar” – hello in Burmese – and even start a conversation, sometimes followed by a request to take a picture with me. Often they offered to help when I looked lost – and I had to face my own prejudice and fear of being swindled. Brief notes on the places I visited here.

What I’ve seen and heard so far corroborate my idea that this is, indeed, a fascinating country. There are many areas where a foreigner cannot go due to conflicts between the Burmese Army and local armed or minorities groups – the most pressing currently being the one in Rakhine state involving the Muslim minority (for more on Rakhine’s recent conflict development check this and this).

Together with my “wow” lenses, of curiosity and excitement for the simple fact that I’m finally here, I always carry my geographer view and intuition. And I can’t help but think that this is a country embedded in a lot of tension.

The most obvious refers to an uncertain future: how will the government deal with the ongoing conflicts? Why Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a Peace Nobel laureate, does not address them?

Not so obvious, are the right policies being implemented to contribute to an effective development and inclusive society?

Even less obvious is the way the government and the Army[ii] take over the territory and express their power over it.

In Kachin state, for example, there is a campground where families from the south of the country are living. They were brought by the government to work on the installation and maintenance of power lines. My first question was “why bring people from the South? Why not hire locals?” Well, “very good question” replied my local translator. For him there’s an unofficial strategy to colonize regions like Kachin – where 98% of the population is Christian – with Buddhist Burmans.

On another occasion, my guide made a comment about “the need for Christian buildings on top of hills, because the Buddhists are taking over and building Pagodas everywhere.” For a geographer like me this is more than fascinating. This is the pure expression of how power expresses itself on a territory. I’m fully aware I have a very partial picture of the complexity involving religion and ethnic minorities here, thus I must confess that after his comment I viewed the Buddhist presence in the country in a different way, with more skepticism than I’d even like to.

This uneasiness and discomfort only make me want to learn more and more about Myanmar. And to follow closer how the current uncertainties will unfold and impact the social, economic, and political development of the country.

 

[i] Last presidential election happened in November 2015 and new government took over on April 2016.

[ii] That is independent from the Executive.

 

Travel notes – Myanmar

Yangon is a city I explored mainly on foot. People don’t usually spend too much time here, but a very good friend is living here and I very much wanted to spend time with her.

While she was at work I wandered and got lost in the humid and hot Yangon, alternating with work days when I’d find a Café with internet and spend hours looking at the computer screen.

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Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda is a must see. It’s the most important temple in Myanmar. Entrance fee for foreigners is 8000 kyat – a bit less than US$8. If you ever go and find the “Saturday corner” – you’ll understand once there – let me know; I was super disappointed I could not find it even after going around it three times.

After visiting the Pagoda, it’s worth checking Vista Bar, where there’s an impressive view of the temple, and the lemongrass lemonade is quite delicious. 🙂

Kalaw to Inle Lake trekking is one of the main attractions for foreigners. I usually try to avoid touristy things but I’m happy I did the 3-days trekking through villages (45000 kyats per person in a group of 5+). There I learned a few words in Burmese, such as choré and laré, both meaning beautiful or full of beauty. I got to ask locals about their lives and answered their questions mainly about 1) my age and 2) my country, then if I’m traveling alone, why, if I’m married or not, and so on.

As far as I can tell, the trekking is organized in a way that local villagers benefit from the tourism in the region. They host groups for tea, lunch, and for the night. If you are rested enough to wake up early you can enjoy a beautiful sunrise and witness the whole village coming to life in the very early morning. First getting water for tea, then letting the cattle out and laying the chilies to dry outside; you can smell the wood burning in the cook stoves, see the kids running outside. By 7:30 the streets were busy and full of people.

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Chilies going to the sun
Again the landscape reminded of Brazil. This time it took me to the Serra da Mantiqueira and to my grandparent’s ranch where I spent part of my childhood.

The trekking ended on a small river where we took a boat towards Inle Lake. The lake is very scenic and I couldn’t resist and jumped in the water for a quick swim. So refreshing!

Finally in Nyaungshwe I struggled a bit to find accommodation because the place was FULL due to the festival in Taunggyi – one of the largest, if not “the” largest, festival in Myanmar. Luckily I was able to find a hostel (10000 kyats) AND transportation (8000 kyats) to check out the last day of the festival.

Myiktyina is Kachin’s capital, 20 hours by train (8500 kyats, upper class) from Mandalay and 2 maybe 3 hours by car from the China border. I was the only foreigner on the train to and from Myiktyina, a city without much tourist attractions, a huge Christian – mainly Baptist – community, and a serious drug addiction problem among the youth. Because of the proximity to China, business with that country is an important source of income to most of the local families, being the trade of teak and jade, among other natural resources, the main economic activity.

While in Myiktyina, I visited one of the IDP (internal displaced people) camps that receives people who flee conflict in their villages. There I talked to a woman who’s been living in the camp since 2011. When asked how she deals with the uncertainty of being or not able to go back to her village she replied that she prays to God, that He is the only one who knows what her future will be like.

A beautiful day trip from Myiktyina is the place where the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River starts, at the confluence of the Maika and Malikha Rivers. If carrying a large camera beware of a 1000 kyats “photography fee”. The Irrawaddy is the country’s main river and has enormous cultural importance to the Kachin people. More about the challenges linked to it can be found here.

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Where the Irrawaddy River starts
First time I visited Mandalay it was only for an overnight, on my way to Myitkyina. On the way back I decided to spend more than only a few hours and was quite happy with my decision.

I rented a bicycle (3000 kyats/day) and rode about 25-30km, from Mandalay Hill to the world’s longest teak bridge, stopping at Zay Cho market – where I couldn’t resist the fabrics and got myself two longyis – and making my way to the bridge by the riverside road. The sunset from the bridge was beautiful, and there I had a pleasant chat with a smiley monk. On my ride back to the hotel I thanked my years riding my bike in the Boston area – known by its very aggressive drivers – as I was riding confidently enough to make myself seen by trucks, buses, cars, scooters, other bicycles, and pedestrians despite not having bike lights, riding on occasional sand banks, and crossing dark streets. (don’t worry mom, I’m still alive and have all my body parts with me)

After spending the day exploring Mandalay I boarded the night train to Bagan (1800 kyats, ordinary class only) where I arrived at 3:30 in the morning, right in time to get an amazing spot at the White Temple to watch the sunrise. I‘m still looking for words to describe Bagan. All I can say is that this place will leave you speechless. Don’t give up after going to the most famous and busy temples. Rent an e-bike (I paid 5000 kyats/day) and allow yourself to get lost among the thousands of temples and you’ll find places to appreciate a quiet sunset or sunrise.

Bagan was also the place where I had two “first time” experiences. It was the first place I missed having a travel partner to share impressions, talk about the different temples, discuss which direction to take at a crossroad, and decide the best location for next day’ sunrise. Not that I did not enjoy it, I did! But I couldn’t help but think it would be nice to have company.

Not as romantic as the former, I had my first food poisoning experience in Southeast Asia. Not sure if it was the beer, the local food I had for lunch and dinner, or what. I just know it was not pleasant at all to wake up every 2 hours and climb down from my bunker bed in the middle of the night. Thankfully there’s Imodium, but I wouldn’t say I fully recovered yet.

From Bagan to Yangon I took the morning bus – not before enjoying one last sunrise (e-bike was 1900 kyats just for the sunrise). The trip took around 8-9 hours and once again I was transported to the Brazilian Cerrado as I watched the landscape through the bus’ window. The bus was super comfortable (13000 kyats) and I slept a good part of the way, hoping my stomach would behave.

Back in Yangon it was time to head to Mawlamyine for a Burmese wedding my friend was invited to – and I tagged along. Mawlamyine is the 4th largest city in Myanmar, something I could never tell. My impression was of a quiet town by the river where George Orwell lived, and that serves as stopping point for travelers arriving or leaving Myanmar through the border with Thailand. From there my first idea was to head south to Dawei, but the food poisoning is still bothering me, so I decided to head back to Yangon and enjoy having a “house” to stay for a couple of nights before hopping on a plane back to Bangkok.


Skills acquired throughout my life – and current highly valued by me:

  • Regular trips to the Amazon region from 2006 to 2010 >> ability to survive heat and humidity and to explore Yangon on foot
  • House/dog/cat-sitting during my last year in Boston >> ability to pack light, fast, and organized. Less is more. 
  • Bicycle as main mean of transportation in Massachusetts, home of the worst/most aggressive drivers in the USA >> ability to ride extra confidently among trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs without falling or being hit. 
  • A childhood eating dirt and a variety of weird bugs >> ability to avoid food poisoning for 2 months while eating a lot of street food in SE Asia. 

For frequent updates on my whereabouts follow @literal.uncertainty on Instagram 😉

Breathing and living Thailand

[leia em Português]

Yangon, Myanmar – November 07, 2016

It’s November and a dream comes true: I made it to Myanmar! This post, however, is not about this country that I’ve been fascinated by, but the past few weeks I spent in Thailand. Hopefully on the next one I’ll be able to share some of my impressions on this intriguing place.

As mentioned previously, I was fortunate to spend my first two weeks with a Thai family, getting acclimatized to Thailand and learning the basics about Thai culture and food (so good!).

Since I left my adopted family in Phuket, I have visited a few places – but still far from seeing most of the country. When you travel for the sake of traveling, and don’t necessarily have to be in a specific location by a certain date, you allow yourself to spend longer periods of time here and there. You allow yourself to experience the local pace, its culture and atmosphere. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do, but I have to recognize it’s still not enough time to assimilate the local way of life – and I’m an obvious foreigner – farang – here.

With the exception of Ko Phi Phi – that I left after 2 nights – I felt like I could stay longer and longer on every other location I visited. Somehow, all the places exposed me to things that are important in my life, and that I’d like to do more often. Rationally I know it’s not a matter of place/location, I should be able to climb wherever I go, or meditate, or practice yoga, or avoid meat and alcohol; still it feels like certain places are more favorable than others to do so, and that’s something I’ve been trying to change during this journey.

The first place where I felt it in a powerful way was Tonsai, Railay, a climbing paradise where I reconnected with rock climbing and realized, once again, how climbing feeds my soul and energizes me. Even though I’m out of shape and my arms and legs can’t hold for long, even though I left with bruises all over my body, I felt complete, happy and fulfilled in a way climbing allows me to feel – and I had forgotten.

I also left this climbing paradise a bit in love. In love with the geology and rock formation. In love with the peaceful and calm vibe of the low and high tides. In love with the beautiful souls – some more than others 😉 – that I met there. If it wasn’t for one of the few ‘time and date’ plans I have during this trip – a meditation retreat in Ko Samui – I think I would still be in Tonsai. I could certainly go back. I’m probably going back.

The meditation retreat in Ko Samui started on the 20th. It consisted of almost 7 full days of silence, a 4:30am-9pm schedule, only 2 daily meals and tea, and sitting and walking meditation. As hard as it was to leave Tonsai I knew something pretty exciting was waiting for me. And I was right.

At the stage I am in the meditation world, it still involves a lot of uncertainty. I have no idea what kind of tricks my body and mind will play with me, where my mind will wander to, how to maintain the focus on my breath once it starts wandering. The experience of a week breathing, dreaming, walking, eating meditation was, to say the least, positively surprising. While trying to tame my thoughts and concentrate on the air coming in and out of my nose, my mind wandered to imaginable and unimaginable places. I had visions, I fell asleep during the sessions, I was bored, I was frustrated, I made lists of things to do, emails to write and people to call. I even wrote emails and postcards in my head.

But to my surprise the hardest part was not the silence or the mindful breathing. I pretty much enjoyed the challenge. The most difficult part was coming back to this loud and “real” world. It took me a few days to acclimatize again to people talking to me, to cars and motorbikes on the streets,  to so many food options. So the idea to head to Ko Phangan after the retreat was just perfect. A bungalow on the beach, an awesome Thai restaurant 5 minutes away, free yoga sessions every morning. Again I felt like I could stay there – in Haad Chao Pao – for a long, long time. But the other thing I had planned was a trip to Myanmar and it  was time to move and get closer to Bangkok, from where my flight to Yangon departed.

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Sunset in Ko Phangan

On my way to Tonsai I met a Brazilian girl who was also running away from Phi Phi. She joined me in the retreat and there we met a Russian guy – the yoga teacher – who followed us to Ko Phangan. The three of us ended up going to Ko Tao together, a small island known by the infinite offers of affordable diving courses – apparently it is one of the world’s cheapest places to learn how to dive.

Diving is still not my thing. Somehow I feel claustrophobic when wearing a mask and snorkel under water, I can’t even imagine a full scuba diving outfit. Maybe I’ll try it one day, but not yet. So when my travel buddies enrolled on a diving course I  decided to make my way to Bangkok and spend time with Namsai, do my laundry – yay! clean and dry clothes again! – and organize my things to finally enter the fascinating world of Myanmar.

***

Dealing with uncertainty as I go – Not only my itinerary is uncertain, unexpected things also happen as I go and I have to find ways to deal with them without getting (too) upset. So far – knock knock on wood – the main thing that happened, forcing me to re-plan and rethink my already tight travel budget, had to do with technology and connectivity.

The last thing you want when traveling on a budget is your computer AND your phone to die. Well, that was exactly my case. First the computer in Phuket. Puff! One day it did not turn on anymore. Diagnosis: mother board. Dead. Thankfully there’s Dropbox! 🙏🏼

Then my phone died after we were caught on a heavy rain in Ko Phangan, on our way to Bottle Beach – northern part of the island. No, it did not fall in the sea, or in the toilet, or in the pool – so I told the technician who stared at me skeptically. It was rain. And it was gone. Forever.

I had to decide if I’d buy a new computer + a new phone – which I ended up doing – and how I’d recover this money so I can keep my previous travel plans. I still don’t have an answer to the latter, but as life already showed me many times before, I’m sure things will work out. (by the way, if I can do any freelance to anyone out there, let me know!)

 

Am I home?

TonSai, Railay Krabi – October 17, 2016

I find it fascinating how my mind works. I prepared myself to arrive in a place completely different from everything I am used to, but then… I was so wrong! Thailand is way more similar to Brazil than I initially thought.

After noticing that I expected something else – the different instead of similar – I spent time trying to find a rational explanation to why Thailand reminds me so much of places that were already familiar to me.

Is it the latitude?

Is it the Portuguese influence? (Phuket town has a strong Sino-Portuguese architectural influence)

Is it globalization?

What is it about Thailand that feels so homey?

While trying to find an answer to the sense of familiarity, I focused on exploring what is – for a fact – different. Which leads me to food.

OMG! Forget everything you know, or think you know, about Thai food. What you find here is a whole new advanced level. This is the real deal.

I spent the first 10 days tasting as many different flavors as I could. It was actually the perfect timing because I arrived right in time for the Vegetarian Festival – so for someone who can be picky about meat like me, the possibilities were infinite.

During the first days I indulged myself with all the flavors and smells.

Trying to pick favorites was a mission impossible.

Spicy, mild, not spicy. Sweet. Sour. White rice, brown rice, sticky rice, rice noodles. Fried noodle, fried rice, soup, clear soup, dark soup. Vegetable stew. Leaves. Fresh greens beyond Thai basil and lemongrass.

If someone out there ever heard me saying I could live on potatoes, forget it! I could live on Thai food. Four times a day. Seven days a week.

Have I mentioned the fruits? OMG! OMG! OMG!

Longan, Ngo, Mangosteen, Durian, even Guava and Sao Wat Lot (Passion Fruit) have a special taste here. I could easily – and actually I did it for a day or two – live on fruits.

For days all I did was eat, take pictures of food, and learn a few food-related words in Thai 🙂

 

 

Then, between meals and visits to the market, I realized why Thailand feels so familiar to me.

I come from a family where social gatherings always happen around food. And suddenly I found myself in Phuket island, being hosted by a Thai family who also gets together around a round kitchen table, three times a day. And the table is full of a wide range of choices to “chim”[i] at all times.

In addition to the food, they are warm, kind, always smiling. They made me feel so at home that if they weren’t speaking Thai I could be in South America.

The streets also remind me of Brazil. Street dogs. Unfinished road work everywhere. People on the sidewalks, talking to each other, being loud. If it weren’t for driving on the “wrong side of the road” I could swear I was in a Brazilian coastal town.

When I finally found an explanation to my sense of familiarity I relaxed and allowed myself to enjoy this beautiful and smiley country in a lighter way – without the need to understand it “tim tim por tim tim” and with less expectations. This approach is taking me to very interesting places and I’m sure this is only the beginning.

[i] Chim = taste/try in Thai

Every journey starts with an ending

Beijing Int’l Airport – September 28, 2016

Every journey starts with an ending.  In this case, the beginning of my journey to Asia marks the ending of three years living in the USA, more particularly in the Boston area, a place I’ll dearly miss.

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Goodbye Boston!

I find it symbolic that in order to fly to Asia I had to cross North America from coast to coast, as if I could only say goodbye after appreciating its fascinating geography from my window seat. Even more symbolic to say hi and goodbye to the Pacific Ocean from the American side, and have a chance to watch a last sunset before heading back to LAX airport. For me sunsets are the perfect expression of impermanence. The sun is always the same, but every single sunset is difference. I’m happy to say my last sunset in the USA – for now –  will remain as one of my favorites until I have a chance to come back to the country that surprisingly grew on me, where I felt home for the past three years, and where I learned so much about myself.

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Santa Monica, LA, CA.

When plans fall apart and life doesn’t go as planned people react in very different ways. The way I react might seem chaotic to all of those whose are not inside my head (another way of saying everyone else), but I like to think that it’s not chaotic, it is chaordic (chaos+order). When things don’t go as planned first I panic, then I activate my “MRB’s psychological survival kit” and start brainstorming hundreds of possibilities, draw multiple scenarios, explore various options, and I always, always, have a plan B (most of the times I do that out loud. So I do understand why some people think I’m chaotic. I apologize for that). When I decided to embrace uncertainty and to be open to the unexpecte, a plan B was being shaped and I was studying it carefully. Now plan B is plan A: let’s explore Southeast Asia!

Why SE Asia?

Mainly because I did not know how much money I would be able to save during one year. My other option would be to go back to my home country but my heart and intuition kept pushing me away from it – and the political and economic crisis did not help either. After doing some research it was not hard to conclude that SE Asia would be one of the cheapest destinations, and this was the number one reason for that.

The second reason is not hard to guess. I’m lucky enough to have amazing friends spread all over the world, some of which are in Thailand, Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. The initial search for flights considered the first three destinations. The price to get to Thailand flying from California was unbeatable (USD 520).

Lastly, I’m fascinated about the world and all the differences one can find from one region to another. Most of my worldly knowledge and experience is related to the Americas and Europe. The languages I speak are pretty much classic western languages. And although very different in terms of culture, I want to see with my own eyes if there are similarities between SE Asia (probably other places in Asia too) and Latin America.

I am super excited about the journey that starts now. An adventure that could never be possible if it weren’t for plans falling apart, for embracing uncertainty, and for allowing myself to live through all the experiences I’ve lived during the journey that ended with that sunset in California on September 26 2016.

Where is it going to take me? Let’s find out!

*

Where did September 27 go?

Last things I remember about September 27:

  • I’m sitting outside a gate at LAX airport
  • I’m trying really hard to stay awake. I woke up at 5am in Boston. Now it’s 1am in LA, meaning 4am in Boston. I’ve been awake for 23 hours.
  • Don’t sleep! Boarding is almost starting.
  • Onboard Air China flight to Beijing.
  • Chinese are loud. Comparing to Americans, with whom I spent most of the past 3 years. I guess Brazilians are loud too. I forgot about that.
  • It’s around 2:30am, and I’m probably still flying over the US.
  • My eyes close. They are heavy. Tired.
  • The plane suddenly smells like Chinese food. Should I open my eyes and eat? It’s a 12 hours flight… No. Eyes closed again.

All of a sudden it’s September 28.

I’m in China.

**