Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Cyclone Detour

Our final 3 days in Yangon were spent soaking wet, with the winds and rain of Cyclone Aila pounding the city. Unfortunately, we couldn't do much around the city, although we did venture out one day with unbrellas for a tour of the down town during a brief interlude, only to be soaking wet in an hour anyway.

We left Yangon hoping for a break in the weather. Instead, we got a Cyclone detour, as Cyclone Aila decided to come in land and pound Kolkata, our next flight destination. What should have been a short 2 hour flight turned into a long10 ordeal. The flight left 3 hours late from Yangon, because the first plane was unflyable. Two hours into the flight, they announced an emergency landing in Chennai (Madras), in the south of India, and 4 hours away. From there they made us wait in the airplane until 11:30 pm. Even then, the pilot announced that we would leave and "maybe" we would be able to land in Kolkata, and "maybe" we would have to turn around again. He didn't instill much confidence! The only food they provided us with was yucky-tasting peanuts, dry crackers, and mini-bottled waters. Finally at midnight, we got dinner.

Unfortunately, by the time we landed in Kolkata, it was 1:30 am, and our pre-booked hotel had already given our room away. Everyone was stranded in Kolkata. We walked past many trees that had been downed from the cyclone, but it was no longer raining. We woke up 4 night watchmen, but everything was full, so we wandered back to the airport and slept there. I found a special room for "ladies", and Adrian and I slept on benches there, away from the glare and noise outside. Unfortunately, Richard didn't catch a wink that night.

The next day, our next plane was delayed again, but finally we flew at 2:30 pm. By 4pm, we were finally in Nepal. Yippee!

Fun in Nyaungschwe

After fighting the heat in the south, we were happy to take an easy 45 minute flight to the cool temperatures of Nyaungschwe. It's in the north of Burma, and the trees and low mountains make it much cooler this time of year. This is almost the rainy season, so there are few guests, and we almost had our run of the town. We loved how easy it was to get around in this small village, which has almost no personal cars, only pedestrians, motorcycles, taxis, and horse carts.

This area is set up for active folks like us on a budget. We spent the first day cruising around Inle Lake in a (loud!) motorized boat with a friendly guide. He showed us local fishermen catching fish with nets and spears, women weaving textiles from lotus flower stems, and traditional silversmiths. We felt like royalty riding in this long boat sitting in adirondack chairs with our umbrellas to shade the sun. I could have ridden all day, and in fact we did!

The next day, we took a 2 day trek into the local Pa-O hill tribe with a wonderful guide who spoke great English. He used to be a forester, so he could answer all our questions about the trees and rocks and animals. He also showed us how the local men concrete out of the local limestone rocks. We trekked 23 km the first day, and got to take in a hill festival of 7 villages complete with drumming, dancing, and drinking rum in the middle of the day. We ate our meals (made by the guide) in local village houses. We spent the night on mats in a village house under mosquito nets. Adrian played with the kids' animals (baby kittens, dogs, goats). The next day we only had to hike 12 km down to get back down to the village.

Our final day there we had our guide organize a motorcylce ride (each of us riding on the back of 3 motorcylces) to a local hot spring for bathing with other villages. We then got a private tour at the only winery in Burma. The vintner spoke good English and enjoyed opening up about 9 of his wines to us to try. He's trying to promote wine drinking in Burma, but really it's a beer or rum culture. For the afternoon, we did a horse trek up to some caves. Adrian really like horse riding, except when the horse nipped at his toes, or leaned too far forward coming down the mountain.

Every night we ate dinner at a different restraurant, and each night, we were the only ones there. Too bad, because we had beautiful weather and really liked the villagers. They say tourism was just taking off 3 years ago when the the protests began, and then last year they had Cyclone Nargis, so tourism is really slow.

If anyone reading this is interested in a unique holiday, maybe something similar to what they used to think Thailand was, Burma is the place to visit. We love it!!!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mon State Celebreties

We arrived on May 11 into Yangon, exhausted, but happy to be there. We spent a day relaxing and checking in with our friends at the Dot Pon Zon Monestery whom we had met in 2002. We got to spend time with the Sayadaw there, who is 97 years old and doing well for his age. He used to travel lots, and now he's bedridden, but generally healthy and fun to speak with through a translator.

The monestery arranged for us to visit the native village of the Sayadaw, Krokpi, in Mon State. We were escorted by 3 monks on the over night aircon bus, and given snacks along the way to go with the blaringly loud and obnoxious Burmese comedys and sitcoms that ran on the dvd player all through the night. We got to stay in the monestery down there on mats and covered with mosquito nets. A group of monestery ladies cooked 3 meals a day for us. Adrian especially loved the way they hovered over us as they fed us fantastic spreads of local seafood, local fresh fruits (mangostein, jack fruit, rambutan, mango, pineapple), vegetables, and sweets, including fanning us with hand fans to keep the flies away as we ate. They also figured out Adrian's picky eating habits and prepared special foods for just him, like fried chicken, potatoes, rice, and french toast. They truly made us feel like kings and queens! And all for free, or course. We made a donation to the monestery when we left, but they really can teach us a lot about generousity.

We spent 3 days with them, and each day, the Sayadaw had arranged for "field trips" involving us and 2 full pickups of local persons. Once day we visited his "tower", a massive metal structure at the top of the highest point in the village, that you can climb and get a great view. It reminded Adrian of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but not as high. All buildings in Mon are made of concrete or wood, so this metal structure was clearly influenced by the Sayadaw's western travels. Another day we visited an ancient monestery nearby to see Richard's old friend, U Agi, the builder of pagodas that Richard travelled with in 2000 (Winnipeg, Edmonton, and South Africa). On the last day, we went to the Burmese seaside. Richard and Adrian swam in the waves, while everyone else looked on. Burmese people rarely swim. They don't seem to know the idea of a fresh water swimming pool, and are intimidated by the salty waves of the rocky Sea of Bengal that is their coast.

Burmese people in general are super friendly and generous, but when you have friends of friends, they really go over board. We met so many people around the town. One man who had spent time in an Indian Boarding school as a child became our unofficial translator for 3 days and followed us everywhere. When I got 5 spider bites during my first night, I visited the local doctor's clinic (the doctor's wife is one of the cooking ladies) and was treated with antibiotics and a dressing, free of charge, of course. We also met a school teacher who invited us to her classroom. We talked about Canada and tried to get them to ask us questions about Canada, but mostly they were too shy. Its not their custom to ask questions, especially not in English. All the girls had huge crushes on Adrian, poor boy, and giggled around him lots. He's only 11 years old and not interested in girls yet, but he looks like he's 16 to them, and taller than most of their fathers already.

It was a bit exhausting to be such celebreties, and to have people around us non-stop, but it was also exactly what we were looking for- a real slice of Burma. We didn't talk about politics at all, but we did get to make a real heart connection with these people. When we left, they loaded us up with cigars, necklaces, and mon longyi (wrap around skirts for men and women). I already miss that fantastic food!

Playing Catch Up

Did I fall off the planet somewhere near Dharamsala? Well, not exactly, but close. Two stories, one at a time.

First, we were in Dharamsala having a wonderful time hanging out in this funky little Tibetan town. We spent a few relaxed days at the Sherabling Monestery nearby with our friend Michael, the uber-relaxed yogi friend from Canada who's been staying in India off and on for 20 years. We got to see the ancient Padmasambava caves and a beautiful lake. We were enjoying eating mutton momos (dumplings), and I even took a cooking course to learn to make them at home. On Saturday we got to meet both the 17th Karmapa and the Dalai Lama in the same day. All was well, until we realized we'd somehow "lost" a day in our planning, and were supposed to be at the airport in Delhi on Sunday, not Monday, to fly to Kolkata in order to be ready for the once-a-week only Monday flight to Burma. Oops! Without blaming each other too much, we quickly bought new airplane tickets to Kolkata, tore up our overnight train tickets, and booked a 12 hr taxiride (in a luxury SUV, no less) to Delhi. We call it the $500 mistake, and have decided to assign Adrian the task of keeping us informed of days of the week. He's doing a much better job! Believe it or not, it did all come together and we made our flight to Yangon on Monday May 11 as planned. I planned to write about Dharamsala on Sunday, but instead I was too busy panicking.

Secondly, when we arrived in Yangon finally, we discovered that not only Facebook, but also all social networking sites are denied access, including Adrian's and my blogs. So no way to catch up. We were able to hack in to Facebook a couple of times during our 2 weeks in Burma, thanks to creative techies there, but they weren't able to get us into the blogs. So here I am playing catch up. Be patient as I try to squeeze in the time now that I'm in Kathmandu.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Our Sleeping Berth

Adrian at the Eiffel Tower

Monet's Gardens

The LOOONG Busride

We decided to go cheap and meet the locals, and take the overnight bus up the road to Dharamsala. The picture of the bus was brand new and they said it was air conditioned, so it sounded relaxing. Instead, we got an old bus and before we even started, we had police hassles looking for a bribe, and they delayed us for nearly 3 hours. Eventually we got a different bus, and we all switched. The new bus didn't have a/c but it did have a few sleeping berths, which were really just flat beds up in the luggage racks. I crawled into one squished along side of Adrian and settled in for sleeping. Unfortunately, a few hours later we got to the border of the Himashal Pradesh state, and had to change busses once more, because they don't allow sleeping busses in their winding roads. So back to a regular bus with seats.

Ok, this had to be it, but then an hour later, we stopped again, this time for dinner. It was midnight, and this was our first food stop, only 4 hours later than the time we'd been promised. Nonetheless, we ate well, tasting some interesting Indian dishes that we had to guess at from the menu. The next 6 hours were pretty uneventful, but not full of much sleep. The temperature had definitely dropped, it was starting to rain, and we were freezing. Our warm clothes and shoes were all packed in the bottom of our backpacks, thinking we wouldn't need them again till Toronto. We huddled together to keep warm and all dozed occasionally.

And of course we had another stop for breakfast. By now the view was incredible, with houses built right into the mountains, and the road reduced to a 1 lane road with hairpin turns. We probably travelled only 50 km in the final4 hours, and arrived in MacLeod Ganj 16 hours later than we'd departed. A little cold and damp, tired, but ready to get out and walk around.

We found a nice, clean guesthouse and set out looking for food. Prayer flags flapped in the breeze everywhere around us, and we felt like we'd been transported to the magical land of Tibet, with Buddhist monks everywhere and friendly Tibetan people. Tibetans certainly have a lot to teach Indians about cleanliness and environmental concerns, and there are signs everywhere encouraging these ideas. The vibe is definitely friendly, and there are plenty of foreigners mixed in with Indians, Tibetans, and monks.

After a 3 hour nap, we felt refreshed and ready to explore. We trekked to the next town (Dharamkot) this afternoon and enjoyed the mountain views, as well as the antics of the many monkeys. We had our first dinner of Tibetan momos and tsingmo with mutton gravy. Excellent!! Adrian found pasta and pizza, so he indulged in both, and fattened up for the next few days when he might not find any more western food. We plan to move farther into the mountains tomorrow and to rest up there a few days before we tackle the return bus trip to Delhi next Sunday.

From Luxury to Cacophony

(You would have read this yesterday, but a power outage in the cyber cafe I was writing in crashed all my efforts, and the cafe never recovered all evening. So I'll try again.)

From the cultural superiority of Paris to the cacophony of Delhi, India. In one long flight, we arrived into Delhi on Sunday evening to a 37 degree heatwave. I have never been so happy to pick out a taxi pickup sign for "The Clark Family" from amongst the 300 other signs. Out taxi driver managed to navigate us out of the bustling energy of the airport (after we cleared customs for Canadians, who are at risk for swine flu, and required a special form to be let in; everyone wore masks who talked to us) and onto the highway. The weaving in and out, driving with no lights, constant honking, and avoiding the frequent barricade obstacles that divert traffic through the immense construction on the highway was enough to keep us awake, despite the time of 1 am. Adrian enjoyed seeing the 6 elephants and cow that accompanied us on the highway, along with all the mini cars and families on motorcycles.

In Delhi, we stayed in "Little Tibet" an area that has Tibetan refugees clearly running all the hotels and shops. Our hotel for the night cost us only $9, but we were clearly sharing the rent with the local mosqitoes, and I got quite a few bites. We found a great little coffee shop and an internet cafe, and were starting to settle in when it was time to take the overnight bus up north to the mountains of Dharamsala, a place known for being much cooler, as well as being the larger Tibetan Refugee colony in India, and home to the Dalai Lama. That would be a ride to remember.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Travelling around Paris

We've had a busy couple of days in Paris cramming in as much sight seeing and wandering as we can. Viewing the Eiffel Tower by night, bicycling from Vernon to Giverny to view Monet's maginificant gardens, listening to mass in the Notre Dame Cathedral, touring the massive Palace of Versailles, ogling at the rose window in the Chartre Cathedrale, and catching a juggling/comedy show outside the Pompedou Museum. We've walked 20 km per day and eaten countless baguettes, and are truly enjoying ourselves. We've taken hundreds of photos, but are so busy that we collapse into bed every night without posting any, despite the free internet in the hotel. Adrian's beginning to understand the quickly spoken French and loving it here. We've only scratched the surface of things to do, but already Richard is packing us up to leave tomorrow for India. Next blog will be from India.