26 January, 2012

Bagan Ends with What my Heart Wanted

This 5 part story starts with "Unexpected Kindness In Bagan" below

Later, back at the guesthouse, I saw how much money I had left and thought about giving it to my friend. I ran into the two women I saw in Mandalay who would not bring the $2 bill, surprised to see me. I was cordial and said I came back to help the boy(who helped me) and his family it was already a clear intent at that point. Knowing that they share everything they have as a family. It seemed so extravagant to use my remaining money on solitary travel, now that I know them and saw what they face everyday. A chance encounter allowed me to wake up, yet again. I could give them 205,000 Kyat (about $250) I had left, asking my friend if this would help when we were talking at a temple. It was then, that he told me his appendix operation used the 115,000 kyat they had saved for a used motorcycle, and he was so happy and grateful. I kept wondering in my head, what if they did not have the money for his operation. Just that afternoon, Mom had to bicycle to a far away village to chop trees for money, he told me when we talking at temple. At no time did he ever give me the impression that they needed money. They were very friendly, void of any requests, and certainly casual in interaction. It would help him when he goes to college which is far from the village they live in, and for his family to get around for work too far for a bicycle. You know they often ride three on a bike.

I decided to bring the money to dinner that his family wanted to prepare for me to give it to his father, so they could buy a used motorcycle or whatever they wanted. I put no restrictions on my gift. He and his brother picked me up on the old worn out motorcycle they had borrowed with no lights on it. And this time Mom and family were not embarrassed to have me eat at the house instead of in the garden, and she could try out the rice cooker and a neighbor told her what works best for ratios with their rice. She made my favorite fried fish and hot peanuts along with 10 other Burmese dishes all prepared with firewood. We talked and ate, my friend and I, while the family had eaten earlier this time. The youngest boy of 4, played a drum with great precision and joy, and kept us laughing. I had the following day until three to see a few more out of the way temples I missed before, but I told him I had no demands. It is up to you, he would say. Time was flying by but this time I felt this was a natural ending to what my heart needed to do. In the morning we met and I bought him over a year’s worth of floss, and his Mom a half-kilo of curry powder she could never afford. I knew he did not chew betel nor smoke or drank, and could keep his teeth if he took care of them. In my head I am thinking about when I return to help him with a dental care and make sure he went to college. The rest of his family it is too late with all the betel they chew, even his 24 yr old brother. My friend had the most opportunity with his morals and goals with his college planned to help change his family’s future.

My last day we went to his father’s old temple where he had ordained, at my friend’s age. It had extensive underground caves to meditate in, some even tiled. It had fallen from popularity as the monks matured, but the whole area is very devout, but I feel that economics dictate that more people had to work or sell to tourists to eat. I would like to ordain there, because it is away from the tourists and could offer me time to develop my Jhanas. We sat on a quiet bench and said our good byes in a relaxed manor knowing I would return to at least see him follow his dreams. We sat down to meditate in the temple to wrap it up, and he gave Thanaka gift he bought. He made the whole trip special with his natural friendliness and made it into a real human experience rather than a photo journey. It really was not a sad goodbye, we both knew that the world just got a little smaller or my family bigger! I have chosen not to show a photo the family out of respect. END

Back to Bagan

I made it back to pack in Mandalay and leave for an afternoon flight back to Bagan and the guest house I stayed at before, who were so happy to see me return that I got a free ride wanting at the airport. It was all beginning to be seamless unlike Mandalay. I felt it would all be a breeze, took a deep breath and I grabbed a bike to find my friend.

He was not at his friend’s bike stands, and so I rode to his house long the dirt road shortcut. I am pretty good with directions, guessing the road into his village, but off by one street. I know small villages, everyone knows each other and when I saw a young boy asked where his house was, and he lead me there. His mother was shocked to see me, ran to a neighbors house to get another boy to bike to get her son while I had tea she made. My friend arrived 40 minutes later and I said. “Guess what you asked about that I have?” He replied, “I forgot.” It was more a matter of things don't matter, but people do and he was just glad to see me again. I put an envelope in his hand and told him why I returned. With it, I bought 5 washable facemasks to wear while riding bikes in the dust to help save their lungs. It was great to see the ring on his brother’s hand, as he shared it with him because he wanted to wear it. That was something unheard of in USA. We made plans for the following day while mom cooked dinner again.
It was then that I decided to buy her a rice cooker, since they did have power and with 7 people it would make life easier. Early morning, we planned to meet at the village ordination ceremony called Shinbyu, where the boys are dressed as Buddha princes and shown off on horses. I found out this visit allowed me to see this once a year ceremony that happens after Full Moon festival. It has been happening yearly since the 11th century.

After that we planned we would bicycle to buy Mom’s rice cooker and take it by. And with the end of the day we planned to see his father’s ordination temple nearer my guest house. Continued...

  1. This 5 part story starts with "Unexpected Kindness In Bagan" below

Times Running out in Mandalay

Amarapura U Bein Bridge

Mahamuni Buddha

Amarapura U Bein Bridge

Kyauktawgyi Buddha

Kuthodaw Paya Tripitakas

Amarapura Sunset

This 5 part story starts with "Unexpected Kindness In Bagan" below

The Surprise that Sparked it All

I awoke early and it became obvious what that the cause was. The time change did not register in my cell phone, because I had no SIM card in Myanmar. We took off at 8:30, and went to a gold leaf pounders shop first, and then it began to seem like a typical tourist trip. Everything from there on, took on an even greater feeling that this whole leg of the journey …that something was not right. Next stop, we went to see monastery morning alms round, and as soon as I saw tour buses, I walked in the opposite direction into a village and bought 40 drinking yoghurts to give them. I walked back and the taxi drivers near by helped me quickly unpack them. Instead of lining with other tourists to photograph them, I passed them out to the monks as they came from various buildings and lined up, avoiding all the shutterbugs at the opposite end. You can either live the life or photograph it but you can’t do both.

Moving on in the program, I felt like we had bought a tour so it all seemed lackluster. A hill of temples, boats ride, and horse cart but all at a local taxi’s price divided by 3. For a little excitement, I saw a government spy on the boat ride, dictating quietly in a hidden phone. Sure we saw bus tours and their guides paying 4 times what we did, but being lopped into the same tour it was getting old. At one site in Inwa, in an Asian leaning tower, Nanmyin I was asked by a vendor to change her dollars for Kyat and I quickly said yes, among three or four people. She pulled out the dollars out of her bag, and what was in it... but a new $2 bill. I just laughed, I get one now, after I leave Bagan. The mind just flew to Bagan. A few minutes later, in the horse cart, I was talking to the women about my experience in Bagan, since it was next on their route.

I told them about my friend there and asked them if would they take this $2 dollar bill to him saying he easy to find. I never got a real answer, but later went to ask again, at the end of our journey that day, and they just ignored me. On to Amarapura to see the U Bein's bridge, and they avoided me the entire time, which was just as well. I used this as yet another sign to get out of Mandalay, and I waited until they were done talking to the owner of the guest house, and told her of my plans to see if I can leave two days early, go to the airline office and change tickets to go back to Bagan. I thought I might as well make it a real surprise; I’ll give him the $2 bill in person since he thinks he won’t see me for another year. I managed to get the ticket changed free and buy one more leg, so damn easy that I had time to run around with a motorcycle taxi to see the temples I missed recommended by the Israeli earlier. While waiting early morning for the airline office to open we sat in a tea shop. It always amazed me how people would just crack a huge smile inviting them into their heart that I would see in the tea shop, and others coming by the pick-up some sweets to take. Continued...

This 5 part story starts with

25 January, 2012

Waiting for the Dust to Clear in Mandalay

On to Mandalay with the Isreali man, on a similar flight, I said, while at the airport I was talking to him, “I feel like Mandalay will pale in comparison to Bagan,” just like a fortune teller. At times I wish I could turn off my gut feeling. When we arrived we got the same taxi, in hopes to cut down the fair, but in general he was somber. There just was no joie de vivre with him, and he was already saying this would be my only trip here. Mandalay in the morning fog, smoke and dust was not a pretty sight, and I was trying to relax. When he said, “Well, there goes my light to photograph," and I was happy to leave him in the taxi when we got to my guesthouse.

The guesthouse owner was talking to me, after a cup of strong coffee, when suddenly without any abrupt or strenuous moves I had valsalva ‘attack’ where I could not talk to her. This is a unexpected blood pressure drop, made worse in the areas affected by my strokes, like my left side and speech. She said relax, and I looked at her with a puzzled face trying to figure why this happened. If I jump up or squat down fast can cause this, but this was becoming one more sign about Mandalay. I put my luggage in the room when done and walked out to go to the fort. Long dusty blocks faced me and I walked for an hour to get there, and there was nothing to see. Most of the fort is off limits and the only to see is a rebuilt ‘half-ass kings palace’, and aversion hit with full force. I walked to the top of the lookout, and saw a city smothered in an ugly haze overall. Luckily, I met a nice Burmese soldier and a Thai man working in Mandalay who I talked to and they warmed up my mood. I walked down to a tea stand and a German woman joined me for tea and treats. We talked travel and plans for an hour. I rested and it was already 2pm, and I have not seen much.

I grabbed a motorcycle taxi to the hill, skipping the temples that lay at the base; he rode me up the hill on the backside, getting there about 3:30pm to walk up the rest with ease. I ran into some English tourists that I kept seeing in different places and we chatted about the travel. They were sweet and relaxed. I saw the Israeli at the top, we talked about what he had seen, and what not to miss and then bid farewell. I stayed to photograph sunset from the top but I was non-plussed.

On the walk down the steps, I got hooked up with a chatty Monk about the school he has and he walked me down. I was cordial but did not like his hard sell approach, never giving me space. I guess he figured he could just pester me enough to give money, but I was having none of that knowing that money is not supposed to be a concern of monks. As soon as I got to the bottom I thanked him for his time and walked right to a motorcycle taxi, so fast that he had no more time with me. It seemed like the only way to get away, regardless of how honorable his school was. I made it back in time to have dinner at the guest house and talk some more with the owner, and plan my next day. We were to see surrounding cities with two other guests said the owner and we could split the pick-up truck taxi. Continued

This 5 part story starts with "Unexpected Kindness In Bagan" below

24 January, 2012

The Labor of Lacquer Ware

This is a photo of my Burmese friend’s aunt(and her son) who makes lacquer ware from scratch for sale as a tourist item. She has to wet and spin bound the forms out of bamboo, gluing them, drying them. Next apply clay to smooth out the finish, drying then sanding it. And then add many coats of lacquer are applied letting each one of the dry. When that is all through, she engraves a scene, pretty amazing freehand. Maybe uses rulers for some, then she applies various paint colors to them. The price wholesale of the 6” piece she is working on the top of ...is only 5 cents. I was amazed at how much time is involved in each piece, so I guess when life seems a bit tough... remember this.

21 January, 2012

Unexpected Kindness In Bagan

** double click on photos to enlarge

I flew to Nyaung U, to start my journey in Bagan still sick and tired on the full moon day. Arrived with ease and went straight to the guest house, and curled up in fetal position waiting for the antibiotic to kill the bacteria. I was without food for two days and pretty weak…but in remarkably good spirits… knowing I had five days to explore instead of rushing. I had made up my mind to not rush everywhere and just feel it out. I slept from 9 am to 4pm, and rushed out on a bike to Ananda Temple where the full-moon celebration was in full swing….all I had to is follow the Pali chants to its location. Buddha’s in the four directions in its interior and with monks and lay people in the courtyard chanting and meditating. It was my original plan to join them, but there was too much to see.

Around one side was a carnival and vendors selling everything from food to housewares, and bamboo mats. It was here that the ‘photo vultures’ were out in full force. I would watch tourists with their long digital lens stick them right up to a Burmese monk and shoot him without asking, and it was so invasive it almost made me abandon my cheap Samsung pocket camera all together. I had bought some mandarin oranges to eat, and shooting this lonely merry-go-round I began to feel sorry for the husband

and wife owners. No one was interested in having their kid ride, I think it was more about the cost as people in surrounding area are not able to afford. It was like 300kyat to ride the Ferris Wheel that had no engine. They just used the weight of the boys to awing it. Going up to them after shooting and giving them each two oranges, they were appreciative. Nearby was a tattoo stall with chairs in front working on a boys back who was obviously in pain. Then after watching the Myanmar singing and dancing show, I walked along the road out that lead to the temple, past the coat vendors to my bike that was parked in a motorcycle lot for a fee.

A young man sitting in a bamboo chair started talking, anxious about using his English, shoke my hand and said, “Your hands are cold!”, I returned with, “but a warm heart.” It was a cold night and all I had on was a light coat. This was enough to start our conversation and out of curiosity he asked about the length of time I had there and what was I doing next. I said, “it’s the full moon and I am torn between sitting at temple or seeing more.” He offered to take me, by bicycle to a near-by temple and go up to the roof. “My cousin’s family are keyholder’s of this temple.” I said, “cool, of course I’ll go.’ Bicycling in the dark we went down the paved road and turned off on a dirt road, with him pointing a flashlight behind him on the ground. We got to a bamboo hut behind the temples and we parked our bikes while he went inside to get the key. This was exciting, and I was charmed with his hospitality, there was no feeling that he was out for anything more. Climbing a darked, locked, tiny stairwell to the top of this pagoda. He said we can sit in between the low wall and relax, “I am in no rush and it is up to you when we go down. If you are happy, we are happy!” Ananda’s lights were on, with the monk chanting in the distance under the full moon brightness… it was enchanting. I was in heaven, and it was hard not to say, “WOW!” Thinking I could die now. I shot a few more timed photographs, and on the way down shot the Buddha inside capturing the bat as you can see. The young man and I were talking about my plans for the following days and he offered to bicycle with me to show me temples. I think it was solely based on his opportunity to hear and speak English, and I apologized for my odd speech. He did not care and so we planned the following morning to meet me at my guest house at 8am, and I did not know his village was 7 or 8 km away. In the morning I asked the staff at the guest house, “How much does one pay a guide per day?” and they replied, 16,000kyat(about $20). So, I kept it in my mind, and got two waters for me and the young man and we took off seeing temples (both on and off the map) in a relaxed bike ride, and when the sun was hot. I treated him for lunch. In the late afternoon, we went to one large temple to shoot, arriving before everyone else and it was here that I notice the photo vultures were out in full force again, shooting the young man while I was taking his photo, it was so rude. It just made me put my camera away more and be a lot more sensitive to others.That evening we had dinner, and he so appreciative that it was very obvious he accompanied me with no other demands underlying, so when he left me at my guest house, I gave him the 16,000 kyat, saying, "That is for your work"….and he was shocked.

I said the next day off while I have a horse cart appointment, that I had booked before coming, and I’m sorry. It was interesting on the horse cart, but you can’t really cover as much area as a bike, and the guide was only marginally more knowledgeable than the young man with a lot less charm…it was business, and it lacked any passion. I did it solely to keep my word, looking forward to the following day to continue with the young man. In biking around I asked him about Mt. Popa, I had put my name out there if any tourists would like to share a ride there. I had a gut feeling it would not be as great as the time with the young man and I discussed my reservations, and he said some don’t like Mt. Popa, others do. He then told me he planned on having me over his family’s house for a full Burmese dinner in thanks for the money I gave him. I had mentioned my first day with him that I would like to pound down my Dad’s wedding and put the gold leaf on a Buddha in Bagan. I had worn it since his death in 1990, and I have resolved his death in the 22 years that past since. We talked about being able to find someone there to melt down and do it. But over dinner on our second day of bicycling I gave him photos I took of him on a disc, and my heart just told me to give the ring to him. I felt he was more important than a “dead Buddha” and he could sell it if he needs to. In my eyes he was a Buddha, and his calm, mindful presence could never be expressed enough by me. He was of course shocked, but gracious in his acceptance, saying you have given me two firsts in my life, the money and the ring. I told him, "I think reincarnation takes places in the hearts of other living people you touch, and you touched me."

My guest house told me they had two other people wanting to go to Mt Popa and I just went with this news in my efforts to let things naturally unfold. We took off at 8am with and older Israeli man, a English woman and a German couple who I bonded with. On the way up, I noticed vendors selling plants and spying a few roses, told the driver to stop on the way, down so I can buy one for his mother. Mt. Popa had some nice views, but for some strange reason did not feel as sacred, I guess because it was home to 37 Nats(spirits) and full of monkeys. I brought some nuts for them, throwing over the edge from the top to where they could eat them without disturbing people climbing the long stairs up.

I was back at the guest house at 4pm, with the rose plant for his mother, and he came with his brother on a borrowed motorcycle to take me to his house. Foreigners are not allowed to ride motorcycles in Bagan unless they have a license to drive. To keep them from injuries so, he put his arm up to cover my head as we drove past the police on the road. We drove to a dirt road by the temples and he had a buffalo cart waiting for me for the final ride to his village as a surprise. Riding in the back as the sun was setting among temples was magical. When we got to his village we stopped at his house, and his Mom had fixed a huge dinner, and they had decided to set it up in their nearby vegetable garden hut among pumpkins, greens and okra with candles in a bamboo shelter. They were going to have me eat first as a guest, but I asked my new friend to join me. His Mother and Father and an Aunt came by to make sure everything was Ok for me…laughing.

He spoke of his appendicitis caused by eating to many nuts and hard things that he had done last year when 18, in the course of talking to him over dinner. And they rarely eat more than two meals per day. We talked about my next visit perhaps in a year and it seemed so very far away. The money he had earned with me was given to his family, as they share in everything. He told me that they had a hard time 2 years ago, and their house is on a uncles land, but the garden plot was theirs. He had hopes of continuing college in electrical engineering, with tuition promised by a French tourist. By the discussion he seemed like he was headed in a good direction to help his family get out of making bamboo walls(father) and chopping trees for income(mother). There was a certain confidence he had in his situation that never seemed desperate. His family was curious and very relaxed with me, with a whole lot less of the formalities of the Thai’s. He asked about a $2 bill having only seen one once, I have none and that they are kind of rare in US, since they are not used. I said, "But, If I had one I would give it to you". He said he would pray for me on my birthday and asked for the date to write down. His mother had papaya and oranges to eat with tea for desert. It was time to say our good-byes and his mother took the remaining food for their family to eat, so that when we walked to his house they were eating my left-overs. I got a motorcycle ride back to the guest house and said thanks for everything. Saying, “I will send my family or friends to see you if they come, but I should be back in a year.” There was no sadness and we both felt that we will meet soon, and it was a nice ending to my time in Bagan.

Any kindness I have learned was most certainly learned. Dedicated to Sue who went out of her way to help me on this path, Sue died early this month. She lives on in my heart.

20 January, 2012

Burmese Daze

My first trip to Myanmar was solo, born out of a desire to see Bagan for years. My partner had given me the gold bracelet to sell to buy domestic tickets to fly while there. But, I could not sell it….yet. The political situation there was just beginning to ease, and since I had held off for ten years now was the time when my partner had told me of a airline sale last summer. I booked 13 days, and it became quickly obvious while there, that 13 days is not enough time. I then decided to not rush between cities to get the most of the time there, but instead to just spend 3-5 days in a few places and let things unfold naturally.

I arrived Yangon early morning, and once I dropped off luggage at my guest house, I headed with two European women on a local bus for Shwedagon Pagoda. One paid my way on the bus, because I had no time to change money since I arrived.

We split and walked around. An hour later, I was walking around when a gold and diamond earring-like object fell at my feet from the top of Shwedagon. It was like a ¼ carat diamond in a gold setting that was probably given to the Pagoda for the umbrella. I looked at at a Burmese couple near by and showed it to them, then just gave it to them knowing as Myanmar people they would give it the right person on the property. I know they have a firm sense of kamma and would never keep it, as much as I do. I spent another two hours there talking to monks and shooting photographs.

I later went to change money at the market, and have a late Indian lunch with a Myanmar man I met. He showed me around and then we when back to Shwedagon for sunset. My first night ended with a late dinner of spicy eel.

On the second day I talked with another monk(named the same as my home sangha, Aloka) for an hour at Sule Pagoda, and mentioned that I wanted to bring food for the novices. He said we can go the following day to a Wat near his small temple, so I made an appointment with him. That evening I stopped at a few book stores to find dhamma books and being referred to one, I got to talking to the owner, who gave me his card and was excited to be able to help a fellow buddhist find a temple to meditate in when I return. I have to get a meditation visa, and he will help with the letter of acceptance when I do wrap it up.

This was one of the many people who would go out of their way to help, even when there is no financial gain or kickbacks. I found a really good Kid's Vipassana primary in English, and it stirred up my desire to teach kids to meditate. It sure would helped me as a young man.

In the way out of the guest house I bought enough food for 100 novices, and treats knowing that the small boys are allowed to eat in the evening since they are growing. I found a local man who helped with the transaction and he got a cigarette tip from the owner of the shop. We walked over to give the food at morning meal at temple and I got to talk to the head monk who then gave me a tour of his school. It combines dhamma and regular subjects in what feels like a relaxed atmosphere. I saw novices reading after morning meal, with no formality.They all smiled at me at me from behind various books on geography and sports.

The head monk said he has two schools and luckily in a well–off suburb in Yangon. And because of this the sangha nearby who cooks for the monks provides great meals. And with all coincidences in life the head monks name(Sorado) was the same as the one I sat with in Chonburi for two weeks in October. I wanted to go to a needy monastery but so was my luck this time.

The day continued with Aloka seeing other temples and talking until ‘the bacteria’ got me, and I had to head back to the guest house to get on my antibiotics I brought.
It was the cusp of a full moon and who knows what might happen. Anyway I owe a Myanmar family copies of the photograph of their new son I took at Shwedagon because I had the camera skills to do so...and I promised. From the window of my guest house I shot a Buddhist full moon procession in the street. It became obvious early on to get the camera out of your face and interact with the lovely Burmese.

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