Burmese Days

A country in the midst of a political transition and geographically placed along the Himalayas, sharing borders with India and Bangladesh and linking a “Golden Triangle” with Thailand and Laos, Burma, now Myanmar, is a fascinating country with the friendliest people in Asia.

Yangon

I stay near the Sule Paya, a golden pagoda set in the middle of a busy traffic intersection. The first thing I do upon landing is head to the bank to exchange my uncreased, unmarked US $100 bills that originated after 2006. Foreign credit cards are not accepted in the country and the banks and black market are extremely particular about foreign currencies. After this extraneous process, I wander Yangon, weaving my way through the activity on the sidewalk; the plastic stools where men drank tea, the noodle stands and the open aired markets. Men use wooden crates to make their “cheroot”, betel nut and chewing tobacco rolled in leaves. I continue on to the infamous Shwedogan Pagoda, said to house eight hairs of the Buddha. The Pagoda is breathtaking at sunset, as the tower turns crimson and the monks begin their chants. A group of monks came over to practice their English and one spread his arms and said, “I wanted to thank you for choosing to come to my country, and welcome to Myanmar!” That would be the beginning of many welcoming gestures from the Burmese people.

Two men coating the Mahamundi Buddha with gold

Bagan

We pull into Bagan at 4am just in time to see the monks, dressed in crimson robes, walk the town for the morning alms. We are greeted at the bus station in the pitch black with horse-carts. Sitting on a wooden crate on wheels being dragged around town by a horse, I feel as if I have found the wild wild west.  At 5am, we take bikes and flashlights and set out to the city of temples, finding one, in time to see the sky change from black to purple to a light blue, and then slowly a golden orange, as the sun began to seep through the valley, illuminating each temple as it went. It is calming, majestic, and even spiritual. After a day of biking through the temples, I hop on a bus to Inle Lake.

Bagun at sunrise
Bagun at sunrise

Inle Lake

Inle Lake thrives with communities of villages that use it as a life source. It serves as a transport hub, with wooden canoes lining the canals to enter the lake each day. Villagers go to work by the lake, boats take children to school each morning and businesses moving goods, ship their items over water. It’s a source of food, with floating gardens and farms, and fishermen who wake in the early dawn. Its a religious center, housing floating temples and pagodas. And it serves as a town center, with floating markets bringing the villagers together each day to buy food. Craftsmen’s stilted stores line the lake, preserving age old professions like blacksmiths, weavers, seamstresses and basket makers. Each day comes to a close in Inle with a boat full of monks floating by, doing their evening chants. I fall so in love with Inle that I choose to ignore the creeping influx of tourist offices and western restaurants.

Daily commuters on Inle Lake
Daily commuters on Inle Lake

Mandalay

North of Inle, lies the busy, noisy, congested, dusty city of Mandalay. The city’s grid system is set up around the Mandalay Palace, the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. I visit the Mahamundi Buddha, a large Buddha painted in gold every day, and the historic teakwood Shwenandaw Monastery. On the way, my taxi driver is eager to discuss the political situation in Myanmar. With the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country is at a crossroads and, as the US lifts some economic sanctions, tourists continue to flow in. This transition is seen in Mandalay’s financial distract, as men go to work wearing a dress shirt and tie, with a longyi, the traditional cloth wrap, on the bottom.

Produce market in one of the villages on Inle Lake
Produce market in one of the villages on Inle Lake

Although the country is undergoing rapid changes, it’s essential to preserve the centuries old customs and traditions that make Myanmar such a unique cultural gem.

~ By guest blogger, Tess Murphy. Tess has traveled extensively through Europe, Asia and Australia, keeping a travel blog everywhere she went.

World’s best supermarket

“Now, we go to the supermarket”, says Abdullah, with a smile. We know the smile is ironic and that we are not about to walk into a Safeway. My son Rohan, our Malaysian friend Fazila, and I have hired Abdullah to guide us through the labyrinthine streets of Medina El Bali, the ancient quarter in the city of Fes, our last stop in Morocco.

Walking in the medina is like stepping back into medieval times. Everything is at a miniature scale. Streets are narrow, some barely wide enough for one person to squeeze through. There are no motorized vehicles in sight, everything is transported by mules.

medina of Fes

There are no straight lines; everything is a twisty, turning maze. Some streets are loosely covered with wooden planks, some like tunnels, ducking under houses. Some are quiet, others bustling with people and activity. Every now and then, a small square filled with sunlight appears, providing respite from the chaos and congestion of the streets.

Abdullah grew up in the medina. He has mind-boggling facts to share: the medina has 10,000 streets, 350 mosques, 225 fountains, 18 gates and a population of 160,000. It is the biggest medina in the Islamic world. It is home to El Quaraniya, the oldest university in the world.

We enter the “supermarket”: a street lined with dozens of tiny shops, selling fruits, vegetables, fresh meat, live chickens, fish, dates, olives, sweets, an endless variety of things. There are lots of shoppers, mostly locals, men in the traditional Moroccan djellaba, women wearing the traditional kaftan.

Non-stop action in the medina

Abruptly, the grocery market ends and we turn into a different market, selling clothing and kitchenware. The “supermarket” goes on and on… we see metal workers’ street, leather workers’ street, brocade workers’ street. Abdullah tells us that Fes has been the center of Moroccan handicrafts for centuries.

Abdullah takes us to Bab Bou Jeloud, the Blue Gate, the most beautiful of the 18 gates of the medina. It is spectacular, with intricate calligraphy in green on the inside and blue on the outside. Just inside, there is a beautiful fountain, covered in a colorful mosaic of tiles.

After exploring the medina, we arrive at a street bustling with little food stalls. I see a stall where there is a large pot of what looks like a bean soup, with people outside eating the soup from earthenware bowls with bread. I think I know what this is; I have read about this in my Moroccan food book! It is “bisara”, a thick soup made from fava beans, a Fes specialty. The aroma is enticing. The shopkeeper smiles as he hears me say “bisara” and invites us to sit down. Soon, we are looking at steaming bowls of bisara, topped with a generous dash of olive oil, sprinkled with cumin and paprika, accompanied by fresh round flatbread. Hmmm….deeply satisfying.

Bisara, a fava bean soup, a specialty of Fes.

Afterwards, we climb up some steps at a leather goods shop to get a view of the famous tanneries of Fes, where hides of camels, sheep and cows are cured and dyed.

Soon, it is lunch time and Abdullah wants us to sample Bastilla, an iconic Moroccan dish. He knocks on an old wooden door. A jovial man invites us into a beautiful courtyard. The man and his wife run a side business, serving traditional home cooking. Soon, we are feasting on a variety of appetizers. There is roasted eggplant with tomatoes and garlic, stewed potatoes, roasted fava beans and a yogurt salad. And then, the bastilla arrives, a sweet-savory pie made with chicken, powdered sugar and spices.

followed by basilla

It is rich and delectable. After the meal, the lady of the house invites us to the terrace to see the view. She speaks a little English and Fazila has a little Arabic, so we talk, as we take in the panoramic view of the medina. She tells us about life in the medina, her desire to travel and how much she enjoys meeting travelers from around the world.

Our tour ends at the wishing well near the mausoleum of Molay Idriss II, the founder of Morocco. For centuries, people have been dropping a coin into the well and making a wish. Abdullah gets nostalgic as he poses next to the well, just an opening in a window. He tells of growing up poor in Fes, and as a teenager, dropping a coin in the shrine, wishing for a motorcycle, and magically, getting one.

One of 250 public water fountains in the medina

We drop a few dirhams in the little hole, wishing for another trip to this fascinating city.

~ Rahul Vora is a world traveler, adventurer and culinary explorer. He teaches world cuisines in his home in Portland, Oregon and  blogs about his travels here. Rahul also has a real job as a software engineer.

Welcome to The Iguana Station

During my freshman year of college, I spent Spring Break in Utila, Honduras. Utila is one of the Bay Islands located in the Caribbean. It is so small that there is no real airport on the island. Instead, I flew to the nearby island of Roatan. Before I left, an overeager escalator chomped at the airport through the sole of my right sandal. I arrived in Roatan with only a few straps and a bit of rubber under my heel.

volunteer in Honduras

The moment I landed, I knew I was in a completely different place. The airport was small and open, for the breeze to flow through. Flowers and plants were everywhere I looked. I took a bus to the nearby docks to board a catamaran for the trip to Utila along with the other students. Like Roatan, Utila was bright and lively. I soaked in the beauty as we made the short walk from the pier in Utila to the small apartment where we would be staying. After settling in, we were defintely ready for bed.

wishy willy

The next morning, I met the other volunteers at the Iguana Station. We were given a run-down of the daily routine we would follow for the week. In the mornings, we rose early and had breakfast. We then slathered our bodies with a cocktail of baby oil, bug spray, and sunblock to combat the sand flies, mosquitoes and sunburn. When every inch of exposed skin was coated, we walked up the hill to the station. The volunteers split up for volunteer duties, such as cleaning, feeding the iguanas, and running the tour.

Iguana station

The main concern of the station is the endangerment of the swamper iguanas, a rare breed found only on the island. Many locals hunt and eat the iguanas. To combat this, the station workers rescue and breed them. On special field trips, lessons are taught to local schoolchildren about preservation. I was lucky enough to teach this lesson; however, the PowerPoint was in Spanish. Most of the children on the island are bilingual, so I frequently had to ask them to translate the words. I still get a laugh remembering the first time I did this.

I gestured to the screen.
“Can you read what that says out loud for me?”
They dutifully rattled off the words.
Feeling foolish, I amended my request, “Can you read that out loud in English for me?
They giggled but repeated the words, this time in English.

cleaning up Utila

Teaching the lessons was my favorite part of working at the station. Afterwards, I spoke with the children about their lives on the island. They were cheerful and inquisitive, and amused by my constant need for translation and my complaints about the heat, which they said was “not even hot yet.”

At feeding time, I went to the marshes to gather small crabs to feed the iguanas. This was a messy, tedious process which involved kneeling in the mud and poking sticks into the crab holes. When they scrambled out, we would grab them and drop them into buckets. We also chopped up hibiscus flowers to create a “salad” for the iguanas. The iguanas may have preferred the crabs, but I was not a fan.

Iguana lunch

Every evening, after our work was through, we explored the tiny town of Utila. We bought groceries (consisting mostly of beans and rice) and cooked occasionally, often eating out. The local food was plentiful, and there were “imported” restaurants as well. At The Pizza Nut, the owner made pizzas to order. They took a long time to cook, but were delicious. One night, I fell asleep while waiting for my meal. Accustomed to the fast pace of American restaurants, it was strange to wait for over an hour for a meal to arrive. However, every meal I ate in Utila was worth it.

The experiences were worthwhile as well. We climbed a mountain to watch dozens of bats fly out from their cave at dusk. They were so many of them that we had to duck or they would fly into us or get caught in our hair. Somehow, unlike the crabs, I did not mind the bats. During breaks, we also went snorkeling, swimming, and hiking across the island.

beach in Utila

 

The last night in Utila, all of the volunteers went to a local bar to celebrate. I spent most of the night beating the others at the game of Checkers painted onto the bar and trying not to think about having to leave the island.

As the catamaran took us back to Roatan to catch a flight home, a storm rocked the small boat. I was rolled in a tarp (to keep off the pouring rain) under a bench for the entire four hours. When I arrived home many hours later, I was still faintly green. Despite the ruined shoe and seasickness, that week was one of the best experiences of my life. I would recommend Utila to anyone looking for volunteer opportunities, or just a unique vacation spot.

 ~ Anna Sandy is a creative writing major at the University of Memphis. She traveled to Utila in March of 2011 with the College of Charleston’s Alternative Spring Break program. Her passions are books, travel, and any sort of dark chocolate-covered fruit. 

Todo Cambia – What is it like in Cuba?

Much has been written about the ruin of previously unspoiled travel destinations due to the overwhelming popularity of the very things that made them desirable to begin with:  Natural beauty unmarred by hotel high-rises;  arts as opposed to mass-produced memorabilia; culturally unique traditions that do not mock their practitioners; and economics based on something other than vacuuming money out of the pockets of visitors.

In a world where large numbers of travelers have the means to seek trophy destinations, it’s hard to find a place worth visiting that hasn’t already succumbed to a tourist culture. The irony is that every time someone like me writes of such a place, we are helping to destroy it.

Cuba is on the precipice of such a change. Since the introduction of tourism in the 1990’s (a desperate means of pulling the country out of depression after the collapse of both the sugar market and its economic benefactor, the Soviet Union), Cuba has survived. It is the influx of tourist money from Europe and Canada that has eased Cubans’ economic pain. As a result, some of the by-products of tourism are evident. The arts are being exploited; street performers live off tourist areas; and even the old cars are now used for souvenir photographs rather than as a means of transport. It’s been the limits on American tourism that have kept Cuba from completely falling over the precipice. It is expected that America will continue to loosen travel restrictions and my travel to Cuba is part of the inevitable commercialization that could turn what is still an utterly unique and beautiful country into a parody for the benefit of paying visitors.

Having acknowledged my role in Cuba’s potential cultural demise, I can say that traveling there has increased my appreciation for the country’s enigmatic contradictions and has left me with a lingering sense of its tragic beauty. What makes Cuba unique is its 55 years of relative isolation during which it has exercised an enormous experiment in nationalistic socialism. What makes it enigmatic is the pull between the idyllic aspects of such a Petri dish and the harsh economic realities of a global economy.

In the end, what one thinks of Cuba has everything to do with expectations.

Before I went Havana, a number of people told me to expect despicable poverty. This was not the case. Perhaps there was such poverty when the economy collapsed in 1993. I did not see evidence of this when I was there and certainly nothing close to the shantytowns I’ve witnessed in many other Latin American cities. Cubans talk about how terrible 1993 was, but it’s similar to the talk I heard in Argentina about the hardships during their 1998 economic collapse. It reminded me of my grandparents talking about the Great Depression. Financial despair leaves scars that transcend culture and politics. Life in Cuba is no doubt hard. While the basic necessities such as food and healthcare are provided for, there is limited opportunity beyond that for economic gain which I think leaves people feeling helpless. Nonetheless, I saw no one starving; no one without decent living conditions; and no one without medical care.

street performer in cuba
Cuba by Cheryl Garin

I didn’t expect lack of crime in Cuba. I was able to walk dark streets in downtown Havana without fear. Nothing has made me more keenly aware of how afraid I have become in America than the joy and freedom to go where I wanted when I wanted. Even more interesting is that I can’t ever recall seeing a policeman there. This is changing with tourism. Prostitution and pick pocketing are unfortunately on the rise.

cuba at night
Cuba by Cheryl Garin

I also didn’t expect the level of cleanliness. I saw no litter anywhere in the city or countryside. Even more remarkable is that young people by the hundreds gather each night to socialize along the Malecón, a main drag in downtown Havana. There is no partying; no drugs or alcohol. And in the morning there is no evidence – the street is left spotless.

I didn’t expect ubiquitous higher education. I knew that Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, but Cuba also ranks world class in medical research and its doctors are highly sought after. PhDs are fairly commonplace. You might even find one driving your taxi.

old cars of cuba

Finally, I didn’t expect the candor of the people in speaking about their country’s faults. What most surprised me is that Cubans are frustrated by their standard of living and government bureaucracy in part because they compare themselves to the United States. It made me wonder if their expectations shouldn’t be based on comparisons with other Latin American countries instead. Cuba would fare quite well in that regard.

If Americans want to go to Cuba to see beautiful decaying mansions, old American cars lovingly maintained by their owners, and a world-class arts scene where music and dance are part of the fabric of life, it exists. But it is disappearing and being replaced by beautiful restored mansions, old American cars being used as taxis, and music and dance shows that cater to tourists.  Already beaches that were once freely available to every Cuban are being restricted to paying customers only by resorts being built along them, the sort circumstance that helped fuel the revolution to begin with. When Americans go, I hope they appreciate the price that Cuba is paying for this economic opportunity.  It’s a bittersweet “todo cambia.”

cheryl in cuba

~ By guest blogger, Cheryl Garin, an IT professional by day and travel photographer by night. Cheryl traveled to Cuba in September 2013 for a Go Eat Give volunteer vacation and cultural insight program. She has also volunteered in Morocco, Peru and Kenya. 

Living Successfully: Five Lessons from Traveling in Cuba

Isn’t it amazing how travel can change your perspective? This probably applies no matter where you go. Yet, I think observing the daily routines of people in another country brings unique perspective. Having a cultural benchmark can focus your thinking on what’s important in life. Continue reading “Living Successfully: Five Lessons from Traveling in Cuba”

Twelve year old teacher goes to India

Teaching is one of my passions. My name is Manika Bhatia. I am a 12 year old girl, studying in 7th grade at North Gwinnett middle school in suburbs of Atlanta. I enjoy playing basketball, swimming, volunteering with kids, and spending time with friends and family. When I grow up, I would like to be a corporate lawyer.  But in the meantime, I am enjoying teaching.

Continue reading “Twelve year old teacher goes to India”

Holland Offers More Than Just Amsterdam

If by some chance, you find yourself in Holland amidst the endless stream of bicyclists, multi-ethnic food, canals, and cobblestones, I hope you venture outside of Amsterdam to see what else there is to offer. With a landmass of 41,543 square kilometers and an insanely efficient public transportation system, Holland is easy to move around in. I spent five months living in a quaint college town, Leiden, which is just a 30-minute train ride (16 Euros) from the international hubbub of Amsterdam. Continue reading “Holland Offers More Than Just Amsterdam”

Why on Earth Would I Volunteer at a Shrimp Farm in Ecuador?

Several years ago, I made the decision like many others, to leave my well guided path of working my way up the ranks in a stable career, to venture off on a new journey traveling around the world and looking for alternative possibilities for earning my way in life.  I had no solid idea of where exactly I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, just that I had to start investigating the numerous opportunities that this vast world provides.

Continue reading “Why on Earth Would I Volunteer at a Shrimp Farm in Ecuador?”

Why I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

The flight to Tanzania was long. It began on June 19th and I finally arrived the afternoon of June 21st.  Katyann picked me up at the airport, then we got Alexa and Kelly, before heading to Moshi.  We spent the day walking around Moshi, meeting up with some other climbers, and had a fabulous meal at the Union Cafe before retiring back to our hotel for the night. Continue reading “Why I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (Part 2)”