Days before I start a new year of my life, I’m finally able to finish this post looking back at 2017 and the lessons I’ve learned from months of traveling, experiencing, settling, working, and getting to know me better – and feeling comfortable with it 🙂
2017 was the year I (re)opened my heart and allowed love to flow (in and out) again. After surviving 2016 (how tough it was!), and traveling east, 2017 surprised me with lovely encounters with places, people, and experiences.
It was January 11th when I felt it was going to be a different year.
It was raining and I had been awake since 5am to catch the first of 3 buses of that day. I was extremely lucky that my travel partner decided, last minute, to continue her trip with me. Because when crossing the border I realized we’d swapped passports by mistake. I had hers, she had mine, and despite the same nationality we don’t look anything alike [another lesson learned from the road].
I can’t imagine how 2017 would have been if I was not able to cross to Laos on that January 11th. I wouldn’t have met the Mekong, nor the weavers of Xamtai, nor started a new habit, nor improved my motorbike skills, nor enjoyed sunsets and the best hash browns at the border with Cambodia. I’d probably have had a different experience in Northern Thailand, skipped Songkran (the water festival), and most important not met all the incredible people along the way.
If 2015 was the year I was forced to embrace uncertainty and deal with it without time to think or breath, and 2016 was when I embraced it and tried to add some structure to it (at least in my thinking), 2017 was when I allowed myself to live it beautifully, to enjoy the uncertainty of the paths I chose, and to experiment without fear of failing.
I spent 3 months in Laos, visited Northern Thailand, spent almost one month back in the US – covering both coasts and a bit of Louisiana and Mississippi -, introduced my mother and brother to one of my favorite spots in the world – where he indulged himself with all kinds of bugs and weird food – and had a blast having them visit my Thai family, and flew back to Brazil for a work project.
Being back in Sao Paulo after 7 years away was an interesting experience, to say the least. I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, and was able to keep feeding my nomadic soul hopping from one house to the other, thanks to the generosity of friends who are more than family to me, until I found a perfect short-term place where I spent the last 5 months of the year.
2017 also taught me that sometimes the right people come into our lives at the wrong time, and there’s nothing we can do about it other than enjoy their company while it lasts. It also taught me that there are wrong people out there, and sometimes we have encounters with them right when we need to learn a few lessons.
It was also a year of love in terms of acceptance.
Acceptance of who and how I am. Of the fact that I don’t have a standard answer to the question “what do you do” or “where’s your home”. I understood that not having a standard answer to questions like these does not mean I don’t do the things I do with professionalism and passion, nor it means I don’t feel home in the places where I am. Regardless of what people might think (and judge), I know that I’m an excellent professional, daughter, sister, and friend who will always be there for the people I love and for the exciting and challenging projects that come along.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.