Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
I left Chiang Mai yesterday. I refuse to say that I left Chiang Mai for the last time. Instead I will say that I left Chiang Mai for the last time on this Asia stint.
As for now I am in Indonesia for 2 weeks. Spending time with family on this side of the world before I make my way over to the other.
It's hard to know what exactly to say as I think about Chiang Mai. I don't think it has sunk in that I don't live there anymore. I am no longer Ajarn and my apartment now belongs to someone else.
Leaving is bittersweet. In one sense I am ready to go home. To speak English, to see all the people who have over the last year only become voices via skype or words on my gchat. On the other hand it is hard to say goodbye to the first place you felt like a grown up, the place you first had a job and a rent to pay on time, electricity bills and work clothes.
I will miss ancient women Thai dancing in the market place, the smell of dessert waffles coming from ever street stall, fried eggs on all my food and driving my motorbike through crowded streets. I will miss countless things that I won't even realize I miss until some March morning in New York City when it's 33 and raining and all I want is noodles from a street stall and a morning hot enough for 3 showers before noon.
The idea that Chiang Mai is now just a memory does not sit easy. But at some point everything becomes a memory and the only agency we are left with is the ability to live, in those moments, as if all of it is forever.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Right now I sit in the military occupied city of Bangkok. This is not the country I know. But this morning I sat just across the border in the former Myanmar capital of Yangon.
Helen and I (for those of you who don't know, Helen is one of those spectacular and irreplaceable friends I've had since babyhood) traveled through Myanmar/Burma for 10 days. I wish you could have been there. I wish everyone could be there.
I could fill this post with countless of those classic "traveling through Asia" moments. Bus rides I wish had never happened, scorpion filled roads, rats in places you never want to see rats, the calamity of miscommunication. But what my trip to Myanmar deserves is an attention to the people who live there.
Crash history courses (and Lonely Planet "background" sections) will tell us that the people of Myanmar have lived with what can only be described as a military dictatorship for the last two decades. Their elected leader, The Lady as she is called, has been put under house arrest by the government essentially for winning the election and so the people of Myanmar are forced to endure communism and a military presence that threatens their very existance. Their is extreme poverty, which sadly becomes routine as you travel, but their is also extreme oppression and humanitarian crises which under no circumstances ever become routine. A few examples. The countryside is ripe with unfound landmines. The military will take villagers and have them march through areas of suspected landmines, so when the villager blows up the military will know where the landmines are. People are killed and captured on a routine basis. Speaking out against the government is not an option. And years ago when a democratic political party was elected to office the current leading party had all of the newly elected officials either captured or killed. There is nothing fair going on here.
The people we met were often ready to talk. A local man who we met in a restaurant called "Pancake Kingdom" began a conversation with us saying, "perhaps one day our government will be as intelligent as dogs." He then went on to tell us about the Burmese's record for zero political prisoners. "This is not true," he said. "In our country you are not allowed to own a television. But if you obey the leaders no one will disturb you for owning one. If you speak out against the government you will be arrested and imprisoned for 7 years. But not for speaking out against the government, they will say it's because you own a television." For this reason the Burmese government is able to tell institutions like the UN that they have no political prisoners.
Even with this as their life backdrop the people of Myanmar were some of the warmest I've ever met. To give you a visual the land is virtually untouched. Or, as it seems, forgotten. Men and women all wear skirts, and everyone walks around with a thick layer of face paint in a multitude of designs, triangles on the cheeks, stripes by the eyes, which they use as sun protection. Electricity is scarce and I will say there is nothing eerier than walking through a huge metropolis at night in pitch black. As soon as you leave the city all homes are thatch roofed huts. And everywhere you turn are people bathing in the street. Using the only water they can find. Lathered from head to toe and always laughing or singing.
Helen and I were novelty items. Western faces are definitely new, (even though I saw more Ah-Nold movies in Myanmar than ever before in my life.) Everywhere we went mothers woke sleeping children so they could see us, entire families would crowd around us for photographs and this was always followed with "hello!" "what country you!" We would say "USA." They would say "Obama!" or "good country!" and then give us presents. Food, little stones, hats. Anything.
A rickshaw driver asked me where I was from. When I said "New York" he looked at me very solemnly and said, "I'm so sorry for 9-11." When you are standing in a blacked out city in the midst of men bathing in the streets and barefoot babies playing with whatever they've found, that condolence means more than I think it ever has before.
One night we went to see a comedy troop which has been repeatedly imprisoned and put on house arrest for speaking out against the government. As the group of 60 year old brothers who comprised the group made jokes in their front room (no they are not allowed to leave their house) it was impossible to ignore the reality of the situation. Here are people, performing by the light of a generator, on house arrest, forgotten by the rest of the world, physically, financially and even emotionally oppressed by their government. And all they really want to do is laugh.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Sunday, March 28, 2010
In Thailand if you are in someone's way they smile at you without saying a word for about 25 seconds, then maybe they will giggle softly into their hands, then they will bow deeply and finally you will notice their presence and move to the side so that they can pass. You will both giggle in embarrassment and nod in respect to one another.
I knew I wasn't in Thailand anymore when after only 10 minutes in the airport a security official physically pushed me over for standing in the wrong customs line. Culture schumlture.
So far my time in Saigon has been completely dominated by my realization of what was actually happening during the Vietnam War. In school we learn about the war very scientifically. We study leaders, and planning failures and treaties signed and ignored. After only a few hours here I saw it from a very different angle. Babies are still born here disabled and disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange spread by our army. Fields are still ruined for farming. And obviously there are the cemeteries filled with headstones from that fateful decade. Sadly our country has those too. Being here with this history hanging in the background has actually filled me with a tremendous amount of shame. I feel sorry.
The day before I left Chiang Mai I went to the American consulate for passport upkeep. After going through security I saw the new trio hanging on the wall for the first time. Obama, Biden, Clinton. What a relief. No vacant Bush, no creepy Cheney, no psyched up Rice. I felt proud to see my president's face hanging on the wall. I feel proud in Thailand everytime someone asks me where I'm from and then they respond with a shout of joy, "Obamaaaaaa!"
But now I'm in Vietnam and when I say I'm American they say, "ok."
So hats off to the three new faces on the wall. Here's to a future that always remembers mistakes of the past.
"1, 2, 3 what are we fighting for?"