Monday, December 31, 2012

Bring In the New

"We met before, didn't we," said Luisa, a Burmese-American woman who'd sat across the aisle from me on the flight from Bagan to Heho. We were waiting for our baggage, which was on a wheeled cart heading our way.

"Yes, at the vegetarian restaurant." I remembered her because she'd been from Burma and spoke Burmese, but had grown up in San Francisco and now lived in Hong Kong. She was traveling with April, a young Hong Kong woman—the two worked together at a networking equipment company.

We chatted casually, and then she invited me to share their taxi to Nyuangshwe, the town just north of Inle Lake. Thank goodness! It's about $25 for that hour-long taxi fare. Now my fare was down to about $10 if we tipped the driver as well as paying him.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Biking Around Bagan

I'd realized too late that I needed to change more money. Yesterday, I'd gone to the money changer at the top of the little restaurant strip in Nyaung U. I'd spotted a brand-new ATM there as well as a small bank, but the ATM had no power and the little bank was shut.

I believe this ATM, and another I saw later, will be up-and-running soon. My guess is this is part of Burma's rapid shift to upgrade their tourism facilities, which is probably part of the whole plan in allowing an opposition party. But I am cynical. And I also fell for it.

Closed! The money changer was shut. I looked at the opening hours again. I was there in plenty of time.

Sunrise Over the Center and Northern Plain Temples

I traveled by pick-up truck, horse and cart, bicycle, and taxi while in Bagan. This view was courtesy a taxi, as I didn't fancy cycling or taking a horse at 5:15 AM to a temple with a good view of the sunrise.

The damage was 8,000 kyat to go, wait a few hours, then come back. If I could do it again, I'd go way later, right at sunrise, since I was after the morning light, not the actual sun. I know what the sun looks like.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sunset from Pyathada Paya

I nearly turned away and left when I saw the hordes of excited schoolchildren running through the halls and crowded the tiny staircase up Pyathada Paya for sunset over Bagan.

I'd hired a taxi driver to bring me out and back to Nyaung U, via the transportation coordinator at the town market. His friend had agreed to take me out, wait, and bring me back for 8,000 kyat. I could have gone cheaper by bicycle, but I didn't want to be biking after dark.

The guidebook had described Pyathada as having just been discovered by the tour groups. Which, even if all the tour groups in town were there, it still would have been okay. The pagoda has a huge level top and could handle a lot of people. But the busloads of Burmese schoolchildren all seeming to be on their first trip away from home was too much. They pushed, they screamed, they ran.

Bagan by Bus

I’d been caught off-guard by the cost of things in Burma. It’s not that it’s expensive exactly—but prices on everything have gone up for everyone (not just tourists), and there is a cartel of tourist pricing that I hadn’t managed to get around. Airport taxis and the like are set, and while they’re not exorbitant, they’re not market rate either.

Ultimately, tourist pricing isn’t really something I’m sure of one way or the other. It’s good that people have a way of making money, and there is no doubt that I have more money than the rural people of Burma (I saw plenty of middle and upper class people in Yangon so this isn’t universal across the country), but then the fact is that’s MY money we’re talking about, and suddenly my ethics are challenged once I realize that holy hell, it’s $25 for a taxi from the airport in Inle Lake and I have to go to and from that airport. And there aren’t many ways of getting cash in this country, so once the cash in my pocket is gone, it's gone.

There are ways around this. For one thing, don’t take a plane. That right there saves you a ton. The bus fare for the trip from Bagan to Inle Lake is probably less than the taxi ride from the airport. And buses tend to let you off in the center of town, or close enough to walk. Another way around it is to do what the guidebook says and walk away from the airport, hoping to catch a taxi off-premises, where it’s not necessarily as set. Ultimately, I might just go along with it and pay the $25 to some taxi driver who needs it and works for it, but then there’s one small problem.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Shwezigon Pagoda

My hotel room was crappy, but I was conveniently located right across the street from Shwezigon Paya, a temple with a large golden stupa. (At least this seemed convenient until the monks started chanting and music kicked in over a loudspeaker at five the next morning—then right when I got back to sleep, the hot air balloons drifted over town with their sighing sounds.)

I walked along a colonnaded pathway to get to the temple from the road, following a few monks in dark red robes.

Old Bagan With Mr. Ed

I was in Bagan—Nyaung U, actually, the small village nearby—and couldn't check into my hotel room until one.

Maybe I'd just head down to the temples and check a few out. I'd studied the guidebook on the plane (on my iPad), and worked out to highlight the things I wanted to remember.

I knew I wanted to go a few miles down the road to Old Bagan. But how?

"Is there a bus?" I asked the hotel receptionist.

"Yes, it is here. No, here." She looked puzzled, staring at a map. "Go to the market."

I went to the market. There was a "bus," which here is a pick-up truck with a covered bed. The bed is lined with two wooden benches. I'd been on these before in Thailand and Laos.

"Old Bagan?" I asked the transportation coordinator. He was a man in his mid-twenties with betelnut-stained teeth.

He motioned to the truck.

"What time?" I pointed at my wrist, which did not have a watch, but he knew what I meant.

From Yangon to Bagan

Toby, my friend in Chiang Mai, had written to me in early October. He'd met a guy who was working in Burma, and that guy reported that the tourist circuit there was overloaded. There aren't enough hotels for the number of tourists seeking rooms.

"You better book," said Toby.

And I listened. Toby is not an idiot—when he tells me to do something, I pay attention. And so I scoured the web and the LP guidebook for contact details for hotels. I cross-referenced the hotels I found with TripAdvisor reviews and searched for other postings. I worked out quickly that the guy Toby had met had been absolutely right. Tourist Burma is bursting at the seams, and I was going at high season. Which I had to, because of my teaching schedule.

I'd e-mailed dozens of hotels, and after hearing back from only a few, I started calling by Skype. I scoured hotel Facebook pages for more current information. I sent e-mails again when I didn't get an answer after a few days.

Eventually, I had bookings for everything but one night in Inle Lake. I had to take what I could get aside from Yangon and Mandalay, and what I could get in Bagan was the cheapest room at a hotel called Aung Mingalar, located on the outskirts of the village of Nyaung U.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

An Evening at Shwedagon Pagoda

I thought I'd take a bus, but I wimped out and caught a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda, a famed golden pagoda that rises high over Yangon. I wandered around for a while, spoke to a monk, became disoriented, and ultimately lost where I'd left my shoes.

A security guard had to help me. Find my shoes.

How embarrassing.

More Shwedagon photos are here. 


This place is crawling with tourists.

Yangon Morning Walking Tour

Getting out of bed wasn’t hard. I’d been up since three, thanks to two nights of sleeping on airplane across half a world of time zones.

My Clover City Center Hotel breakfast was well intentioned and even decent. The intent might have been to satisfy all customers, as everyone got a large breakfast featuring both western items and Asian items. I ate it all. I had a long morning ahead of me. I needed to get my bearings and shake off my jetlag, so I planned to follow the LP’s suggested walking tour.

But first…caffeine. The hotel morning coffee was watery and bland, like some off-brand Nescafe. Blech. Strong coffee is one thing I look forward to in Bangkok. The Thais love their coffee.

I tried to visit a local chain called Café Aroma, but it was closed for renovations, so instead I headed to something called Parisian. This is a bakery that also serves juice and coffee. I got a suitable iced latte and then headed on, down to Sule Paya, the pagoda in the central traffic circle. I can’t imagine trying to meditate in the middle of that, but maybe it makes things more challenging.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Travel Part of Traveling

My layover in the Paris airport was a walking delirium dream.

I disembarked in Terminal 1—wow, what a crap terminal. But it had an interesting layout, full of futuristic walkways from the era when that was the future. It reminded me of Tomorrowland, kind of worn out now, but once it might have been exciting. The future will look like an octopus of moving walkways. But no food at 6:30 in the morning on Christmas.

Three bars that served baguettes opened at seven. I asked a guard where I could get some coffee and she said "You don't need a visa. Why don't you leave?"

I headed out past passport control and found myself nearly snoozing in a big cushy chair at Starbucks with a big latte in front of me. I did everything in a dreamy state, and wondered if my next flight, on Thai Airways, would be better. My previous flights on Thai had been wonderful compared to the cramped seats on the average American or British airplane.

The Thai flight was also packed, but I've been doing this long enough to have known to call ahead to get a seat assignment, even though you can't do that online from the United partner website. I have been caught out when booking too late to get a decent seat, but this time I'd gotten a bulkhead aisle seat. And Thai flights have more seat and legroom anyway, so though the flight was full, I put up my feet, pulled the blanket over me, and proceeded to wake up only three times over the next eleven hours.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Joyeux Noël

"Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you a question?"

The man in 32D looked a bit nervous. If this weren't an airplane full of a few hundred people, and he weren't about to have to sit next to me for six-and-a-half hours, I'd think he was about to ask something pervy.

"Yeah?" I tried not to look too suspicious, though of course I was completely suspicious. Why didn't he just ask? What could be so delicate?

"Do you like the middle seat?" I laughed out loud at him now.

"No. No one likes the middle seat." I had the aisle seat and he had the middle.

"Well, some people like to sleep."

"Maybe babies like the middle seat," I informed him. "No one else."

He sheepishly backed off. I felt a little guilty as he was much taller than I am. But I couldn't bear the thought of volunteering to suffer even more. I already had to fly across the Atlantic, sit in Paris airport for six hours, then fly to Bangkok, then connect to Burma. I'm flying on a free frequent flyer ticket and no other routing had been available. Why would I want to increase my suffering? And hadn't I stalked the online seating charts for weeks to get this aisle seat? Where had he been during all that?

I ignored him after that, and then once we were airborne, I pulled out my iPad.

"Can you please turn off your wi-fi on your iPad?" I glared at him now. "It's off."

Seriously. We're on a plane. Not the kind that offers wi-fi. We just took off. I won't see a power source again until Paris. Why the hell would I have my wi-fi on?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Every Girl's Dream

Aunt Peggy gave me finger sporks. A great stocking stuffer!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sculpture by Sandy Storm

I spotted this over by the J.C. post office today. I guess it was easiest to just leave it and saw away the rest.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Circuit Breaking

I wasn't expecting this at the place I was staying in Barcelona.

It's a nice place, really great. I've stayed there at least four times over the years and never had a problem.

So it scared me when I got back from my day of wandering and the lights wouldn't turn on. And there was a funny smell.

I used my phone as a flashlight and investigated. I followed the smell and stopped dead when I saw what had happened.

Hmm. That's not good.

I thought about fleeing to the nearest available hostel, but packing in the dark seemed impractical. Plus, I'd paid for two nights and didn't really want to pay again elsewhere.

I found the information sheet on the apartment and tried calling the office. But it was Sunday night. I heard the phone ringing upstairs.

I texted the cell number on the form.

Ten or so minutes later, I got a text that explained to me where the circuit breakers were. I flipped two and the lights came back on.

I flipped the other two, got a small explosion, and all the lights went off again.

I waited a minute, then flipped the first two. Maybe I'd just ignore the others.

The guy who'd checked me in showed up then. "Can I see the problem?"

I showed it to him and he was pretty stunned too. We decided the electric radiator had overloaded the circuit. I couldn't remember if I'd left it on or not, but anyway, if it hadn't happened today, it would have happened the next time the weather got cold.

I didn't sleep well that night. I kept waking up, thinking "What if there's a fire?"

There wasn't. And in the morning, I left the keys on the table, pulled the door shut behind me, and rolled my bag down to the metro, to head up to the aerobus stop.

And was off to JFK.

Under Construction

I have been to Barcelona at least a dozen times, including a three-month stay in 2004. But I had never been inside La Sagrada Famillia. Why? It's expensive. Much of the amazing stuff is on the outside. And there are always really long lines.

This time around, I bought a ticket online in advance for 10 AM on a Sunday morning. I didn't have to wait at all.

I went up one of the towers, which was fine, but I think it would be awful during high season. You go single-file down the stairs (or take the elevator), and you go as slow as the slowest dawdler. So this could be aggravating when a lot of people were there.

I was amazed, as most people are when they visit. But also, I couldn't help but wonder why, and who had all this money, and was it worth it?

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Churros y xocolata

These are a few of my favorite things.

Caganer Season

Christmas-time is caganer season in Catalonia! You know caganers, the little squatting-shitting figurines that I collect.

They started as shepherds that squat on the edge of Catalonian nativity scenes. I already own Castro, Obama, Prince Charles, and Tintin caganers.

But I've never been to Barcelona during caganer season, so I was pretty excited that I would finally get the chance to go to the holiday market in front of the cathedral. That's where they sell the most, varied caganers.

The original:

And here is an example of--wow--how many they sell at Christmas:

How to choose!!?

I finally picked these four, Dalai Lama, Hillary, Bruce, and Kate.

And here's a closer look. I have to say...the other ones I've purchased have been sculpted better. These look a bit mass produced. But hey, I'm still glad to have them.

Brain Burp

"Merci," I said to the Barcelona passport officer. I need to reset my default foreign language. I'm still stuck on Tahiti and West Africa from last year.

A Quick Stopover

The Sights

Came across some goofy stuff in London. The first is odd and unsettling, the second downright unethical.