The Spirit of GLOW Comes Alive (And That Spirit Ain’t Holy)

What words come to mind when you think about a camp for girls?

Inspiration? Bonding? <3 to <3’s into the wee hours? Tears? Campfires? Petty-drama? More bonding? A girls camp wouldn’t be complete without all of these things but what about spirits?


During the days building up to Camp IGLOW, I couldn’t help but feel giddy butterflies in my stomach, not out of nervousness or anxiety but because I couldn’t wait to share the joys of camp with my students. In the States, heading off to camp signifies a growth of sorts. Leaving your families for several days or weeks at a time, to stay somewhere “unfamiliar”, to make new friends, to create new memories and inside jokes that only your new friends will understand. IGLOW was no different.

When my kids have free time, most of them spend it at home, parked in front of the TV. They are missing out.  

Within the first day our girls were allllll sorts of camped up. They had already forged those new relationships, some even holding hands with one another between sessions (so sweet), and had gotten into the whole exhausted “I love it but I wanna nap” session routine.

During day three, after outbound activities were finished, we took a short trek up to a local waterfall that the area is known for. Sitting in pools of fresh spring water in our clothes and taking hundreds of photos… little did we know that we would come back with not just 80 participants but 80 participants and an Indonesian particispirit.

What are these spirits I speak of? I’m still trying to figure that out myself. It’s a common phenomenon not only in Java but also throughout Asia and 99% of those I have spoken with believes in these “spirits”.

During my two teaching years in Java, I’ve seen dozens of female students suddenly start screaming or sobbing, and watched as their eyes rolled into the backs of their heads, their normal selves completely lost as they slowly became incapacitated and eventually unconscious. The common term for it is kesurupanIt’s so common that when it happens, no one freaks out. Instead of notifying parents, peers remove the victims’ limp, unconscious body to lay down in the nurses’s office. A shaman (every school seems to have one, ours happens to be the school groundskeeper) is called in. Yes, you read that right, a S-H-A-M-A-N. After the unconscious stage, the victim (most often always a female) begins sobbing, rolling around with her fists tightly balled as her friends stand by, one fanning and the other trying to break the grip to prevent her nails from digging into her palms. Once the shaman begins doing what he does (usually reading verses from the holy book and rubbing the toes of said victim), the victim begins moaning, sometimes screaming, and voila, just like that, the student breaks a sweat and returns normal, with no memory of the possession.

Everyone agrees that these spirits are more likely to possess someone who is daydreaming or has “empty thoughts”. The year before I arrived in Indonesia, one of my good friends was known to be possessed quite frequently that people thought she was actually crazy. She wasn’t. The following year, she was fine. 

If that sounds crazy to you, that’s because it IS crazy. It doesn’t make an ounce of sense. Why only female teens? Why don’t they strike during exams? Why didn’t they possess me in high school? I did a fair share of daydreaming then. I don’t want to believe in the spirits but I can’t think of any other logical explanation that would make any sense.

Example #728 of how living here has left me feeling not only confused about certain cultural customs, but also utterly puzzled.

After visiting the waterfall and returning to campus before sessions started up again, one student got a headache, so she skipped session to rest. Within a couple of hours, her condition worsened. She began rocking and rolling around on the mattress, moaning, fists balled, eyes closed. Kesurupan. Her friends claimed she picked it up at the waterfall, where many “nature spirits” hang out. One of my students who was rooming with her said their other group members were teasing her, “jahat, (mean) miss”, she said. Apparently her friends had taunted her so much about not getting possessed that the exact opposite happened. As her condition worsened, a local shaman was called in…

While all of us were standing in the upper courtyard* in a circle during the reflective candlelight ceremony, one by one, each girl shared their proudest personal achievement, when suddenly loud moans erupted from the teacher’s area. Some girls looked around with puzzled expressions but we continued. The spirit had been released and all became peaceful again…

Later that evening during the talent showcase, the electricity went out. Lo and behold, many believed spirits were still present among us. The girls began to sing an Islamic hymn together with the intentions of releasing the spirits. Sitting against the wall in the glowing aula of candlesticks melting into the floor, bouncing the warmest hues off of our participants’ faces, chanting the same melodic prayer over and over again, is a special moment that will stick with me. Not only did it define Java’s powerful Islamic unity but also the power of a unified community, that believes in the necessity of harmony to ward off forces of evil. Without any commotion, without any discussion, they just prayed until they felt safe again.

In the end, I was happy that the girls had gotten their camp experience… with a Javanese twist.

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* = originally we had organized the ceremony in the lower courtyard, but a participant fought against the idea, claiming she’d seen a ghost…check out Melanie’s insightful post: Traditional Ghosts in Indonesia

13 from Camp IGLOW Pacet 2013

The raw numbers: 80 camp participants, ~10 counterparts, 8 Peace Corps Volunteers, from 6 different regencies, 5 NGO collaborations, 4 days, 3 nights, a waterfall and a particular kesurupan (spirit/possession) decided to join, and countless Rp spent on crunchy oleh-oleh. To celebrate the accomplishments and successes of the Mojo area’s 2nd Annual Camp IGLOW – Indonesian Girls Leading Our World, I’d like to share 13 photos from IGLOW Pacet 2013. Some words of appreciation dulu, please: Thank you to everyone who poured their hearts and souls into this, those who spent hours upon endless hours translating materials, those who bugged their CPs and principals endlessly, those schools and CPs who supported IGLOW, those who donated, and those who were dedicated, sincerely believing in this project– who saw it from start to finish–for making this past weekend’s event one of the most inspiring and successful yet. Oh meee, this is getting keju-y.

Lastly congrats to all PCVs who built upon the first camp’s successes in 2012 and made it blossom into FOUR this year! That’s amazing. And to Bu Sari & Natasha, if I haven’t said it enough, you’re both too great for words to describe.

In no particular order, scroll over for captions…

I Had An Experience

“I had an experience, I don’t know how to put it into words.” – Don Draper

My backyard where things get real rural.

My backyard, my calming escape, where things get real rural, a place where the dancing paddies remind me that nature is always effortlessly soothing and beautiful.

Elaine, Erin, Nis, and the kids do a happy jib as my two worlds collide. I'm hidden in there somewhere.

Elaine, Erin, Nis, and the kids do a happy jig as my two worlds collide. I’m hidden in there somewhere.

Astagafirullah! My sister was here. I blinked once. Loh! Suddenly I’m left staring April deep in the eyes as January, February, and March, respectively, pretend like I didn’t just neglect them. I’m back. I realize that it’s silly to be quoting a fictional character from Mad Man. Don Draper isn’t exactly a person whom I particularly idolize. On a recent evening, feeling at a loss on how to revive this blog, I had some Mad Men playing in the background when this line caught me. For once, I could empathize with Don as he alluded to a series of indescribable complexities happening around him. Succinctly summarized, and I realize not the most unique of phrases, it applies to my service in this moment, and very well might be how I respond when rando’s ask me: “So, how was the Peace Corps in Indonesia?”

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Roni and friends daydreams in the hammock on a lazy Sunday.

Rony and friends daydream in the hammock on a lazy Sunday.

Trying to digest each memory, attempting to dissect and repackage those memories into something comprehensible for my friends and family had once made me neurotic, like I was always falling behind in keeping them up to date, even if it didn’t mean much to them, it meant a lot to me. Ultimately, I saw it as an investment into my readjustment phase for when I return to the States. An enormous amount of change was happening on every level—I was maturing, I felt it, and it was scary (!)—remember Java Dreamin’? With time, that urge to always be repackaging gradually dissipated but now four months deep into 2013, I find myself at a loss for real words to delineate what’s been happening without poking fun at something or composing something that William Zinsser wouldn’t scoff at (maybe he would scoff at this). I couldn’t sneak back in with another vacation post when I’ve been busy working but had little visually to show for it.

The world map and motivational wall now graces the walls of the new computer lab at school.

World map (not pictured) and motivational wall that was once open space outside now graces the walls of the new computer lab at school. I begged my principle not to paint over it.

End of the semester sandwich making contest, 17 groups representing each class at SMANDA. The winner? A mixed tempeh patty with homemade peanut sauce.

End of the semester sandwich making contest, 17 groups representing each class at SMANDA. The winner? Class X6 who made a  mixed tempeh patty with homemade peanut sauce.

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The winners, X6, who made my taste buds dance with their creative twist: a Javanese veggie patty.

Devi, part of the prep team, who made my taste buds dance with their creative twist on the veggie burger: a Javanese tempeh patty.

And would you really have wanted me to explain my recent thoughts on… how my brain often lags when speaking English at normal pace with friends because it doesn’t immediately register which language I should be processing? …what it feels like to be crammed into a tiny van originally made for eight but filled to capacity with TWENTY-THREE adults respectively (aduhhhh)…for two straight hours  (mind you, as I compromise my personal space under a tropical blanket of heat during fumerific traffic jams)? …personal space, what’s that (no, really, I’ve sincerely forgotten. Why would you want to sleep two in a double bed when you could cozily fit four? That’s a serious question)? …my random cravings for gorengan? …recent lesson plans? …how I plan to prevent Dawar from becoming a factory capital/suburb of Surabaya?…how my heart flutters a little bit when my kids excessively roll their r’s out of habit? …the small, yet humbling moments where I found myself in the neighborhood shop having conversations with several ibu’s about laundry detergents that won’t make my hands peel…how the other evening between tutoring, the kids and I got distracted and chased mosquitos in my living room with an electrical racket like the cold-blooded mosquito exterminators we were (there were so many mosquitos [read: zapping and sparks], it was like the 4th of July)? …why during vacation, my friends and I decided to fall asleep, bertiga, hip-to-hip, in the same bed when we had already paid for an extra room? …how I feel about another student getting pregnant? …tedious IGLOW planning? … how terrified and thrilled I am about leaving my Indonesia family five short weeks from now?

The word boss is thrown around frequently in Java, people like to say "yes, boss!" even though no one is really talking to their boss. Well, here I am with my boss and other teachers at the school posing for our annual calendar photo.

The word boss is thrown around frequently in Java, people like to say “yes, boss!” even though no one is really talking to their boss. Well, here I am with my boss and all of the female teachers at the school posing for our annual calendar photo.

Another lazy, hot Sunday, spent in my room with the kids. They like to play in my room because it "smells good", I have a spring bed (which isn't very common in the desa) anddddd because I have a FAN!

Another lazy, hot Sunday, spent in my room with the kids. They like to play in my room because it “smells good”, I have a spring bed (which isn’t very common in the desa) anddddd because I have a FAN!

My host niece, Kela. She's just turned one and is walking/wobbling around quickly. Points to me where you ask her where her "auntie" is.

My host niece, Kela. She’s just turned one and is walking/wobbling around quickly. Points to me when you ask her where her “auntie” is.

Peace Corps for me has gradually grown from being several hills, valleys, and peaks (with the occasional jungle) into an eloquent Everest of memories that I can’t wait to look back on and fully understand in the years to come. Sure, there’s been a few hiccups that I could have done without. Excluding those, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Every day is a blessing. Every day is full of surprises –big and small, meaningful and trivial– all essentially adding up to something. That something, I’m still trying to grasp. I had an experience. I don’t know how to put it into words.

Backyard paddies.

Backyard paddies.

I met my host grandmother for the first time last month.. she was on her way out to the fields. She gave off the loveliest of auras!

Last month while walking in the paddies with my host sister, Nis, I met my host grandmother for the first time .. she was on her way out to the fields. She gave off the loveliest of auras!

My host sister just started taking a photography class at university, on Sunday morning, we went out to practice. This a result of that. Sugar cane stalks on my head but also represents my constant balancing act.

My host sister just started taking a photography class at university, on a Sunday morning, we went out to practice. This a result of that. It may just look like sugar cane stalks on my head but it also represents my constant balancing act that I call Peace Corps.

The Wandering Bears… “Like They Do”

Another long bus journey later we found ourselves passing the remnants of a recent plane crash before arriving in the main town of Inle. Were we homeless? Of course. It was at Inle that we were nearly led to believe that we would end up sleeping in a monastery or on the streets. Working the woeful bear-eyes really got us far sometimes which may translate to: Elaine is really just that charming.

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I. I left my heart in the desa (village)

One morning we all decided to split up and explore the area. That day Erin and Elaine sunbathed on some random plot and got stared at (but didn’t care). David saw a young boy riding a water buffalo through a river–like they do. Daniel and I followed our Peace Corps instincts and headed as far away from tourists as we could and gravitated towards the rural villages where we were greeted by a pack of young, curious children. We smiled. They laughed. I gave them my camera. They got boogers on it. The only English they knew was “money”. Some high fives were had. Daniel played soccer with a baby monk. In all truth, I’d imagined my Peace Corps experience to look more like what I’d observed in the countrysides of Myanmar. Riding through those villages, the imbalanced distribution of wealth was incredibly clear whereas in Java, those lines can be quite blurry. Pictures will do the rest. 

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IMG_1115Thanaka is unique to Burmese culture. Most women and children wear it on their faces–sometimes in ornate patterns and sometimes in random splotches (see boy in the red shirt above)–for skin protection, for natural skin enrichment and beauty purposes. Thanaka is made from a special bark  mostly unique to Myanmar. It’s made by hand grinding the bark on a stone slab into a fine powder and mixed with water until it becomes a smooth, applicable paste. I saw a couple of foreigners wearing it and was secretly envious of their bravery.

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Between posing for shots, the girls played what seemed to be a traditional game that I never caught the name of. Two friends held a chain of rubber bands while their third friend attempted to jump as high as possible, trying to catch the chain with her foot. A reverse limbo if you ask me. A similar game exists here in Indonesia.

IMG_1182 IMG_1188I quickly remembered how draining hanging out with hyper kids can be. Who would’ve known that adorable booger infested kids could ignite such an apetite as the one I felt that afternoon? We took a scenic way back, avoiding some not-so-classy French teens and headed back to town for a beary much needed lunch. IMG_1196

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II. Hike now, drink later

We met up with our trek guide the following morning who it is crucial to add sported the most stylish denim bell-bottoms that I’ve ever seen. He led us on an eight hour adventure through some buddhist caves (where I first discovered my claustrophobic anxieties), hillside farms, and various villages. Our guide got us excited about that afternoon’s lunch which supposedly would have barbecued spiders among many other traditional delicacies. I may or may not have spent the following two hours convincing myself that they were probably going to be the most delicious thing besides Cookie Butter. By the afternoon, I felt duped and a little disappointed when we’d stopped for lunch at a local villagers home and found steaming bowls of ramen waiting for us instead. The ramen was satiating but damnit, I really wanted barbecued spiders. Post-ramen comas ensued…and yes, without sounding like a creep, David often smiles whilst sleeping. IMG_1213

Alhamdulillah! The trek through the Shan Hills was lovely but the French operated Red Mountain Estate on our way back into town, offering $2 wine tastings, quickly became the highlight, making the Virginian in me beary, I mean, very giddy.

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Despite being pretty filthy from that day’s hike, what probably got us the most stares by the end of the day was how the taaaaaannins had brought out the true [read: loud, borderline obnoxious] Americans in us.

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We had fun. And there may or may not have been a pre-dinner Gangnam Style dance off in our room before dining next to a group of Nat Geo photographers (whose photos I completely swooned over).

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Part III. Jumping cats gang call it quits, scoff at “wonderman”

As you can imagine, the following morning I wasn’t feeling my best but you know what oddly motivated me to get out of the bed? Jumping cats….and the stimulating scent of Indonesian eucalyptus oil.

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Maybe not just the jumping cats. Finally seeing and being on the famed Inle Lake was enchanting — how the fog mysteriously hovered over the entire lake as if mimicking levitating spirits, families of pelicans gracefully settled on the waters, completely undisturbed by our invasive chuggugling diesel engine, as floating sanctuaries quickly became mere mirages once entire floating communities, raised proudly upon bamboo stilts, became the norm.

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One of the big monasteries on the lake claimed to have trained cats to jump through hoops. What that has to do with anything buddhist and why that seemed so exciting at the time, is beyond me. When we arrived, the cats were lazying around and napping. Supposedly the spike in tourism had forced the cats into early retirement. Us tourists sat around eating the free soybeans by the handfuls as if waiting for something to happen…when a lean old Burmese man in his late 60s, sporting a long pony tail in a snazzy gray suit caught our attention. He passed around a photocopy of an article that declared him to be a man of extraordinary talents, like breathing underwater without any aids for hours. He removed his blazer and soon started rotating his shoulder blades in the most unnatural motions I’ve ever seen. As if the Hulk was about to burst from his tiny frame, he let out an inhuman growl/bark. I took a video. He singled out one of the monastery’s pillars and started karate chopping at it with his forearms without flinching, barely catching the attention of the head monk, leisurely reading a newspaper nearby. He asked two skeptical-turned-worrisome tourists to attempt to strangle him, and because his neck had the strength of a 500 year old tree trunk, they couldn’t. While this was all happening, some cats napped as others slyly tip-toed around us, as if thinking “ha, this guy…psh, I jump through hoops.” He put his blazer back on as if he didn’t just do all of that crazy shit, and left. Didn’t even ask anyone for money. What? 

After witnessing all of that, I felt jaded… until we stopped at a workshop and I saw a Kayan woman wearing the infamous neck rings in person.

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IV. Last Call

The bear family chronicles had to come to an end at some point. Someone needed to go back to the grind and earn some money for that honey. I mean, it doesn’t pay for itself. We made sure to get back to Bangkok in time to ring in 2013. Bangkok celebrations were unlike anything I’d ever seen. An entire block filled with vintage VW vans were converted into flashy street side bars, blasting top 40 hits alongside others vans, selling any and all drinks in colorful plastic beach pails. Locals and foreigners of all ages danced in the streets.

photo credit to hannah

I reunited Hannah (!!) who took us to eat what’s gotta be the best Mexican restaurant in Asia. Wet burritos, a hot sauce bar, and real mojitos nearly put us out four hours before 2013 kicked in, but we persevered. We continued our night at the VW bars and then to a fancy-chic rooftop bar where electronic beats played in synch with The Matrix, being shown on a massive screen near the bar. Drinks were served in mini fishbowls. And somehow we managed to miss the countdown. The roof was too packed to dance and the old bu in me was beginning to get a case of the yawns.

photo credit to david

Sorry Daniel, your brother cut your head out. The Indonesian clock was beginning to tick…it was soon time to pulang.

Bagan Bears

hot balloons over bagan
After surviving our first of several long bus rides in Myanmar, during the wee hours of the morning—homeless, stinky, cold, and mildly disorientated—we had arrived in Bagan. We settled into a hostel that can only be described as a small upgrade from a basic jail cell, but it did its job. Adding some festive cheer by hanging up some Christmas stockings that David had brought over from Taiwan fittingly on the towel rack, it became our home for the next couple of nights. bear family stockings

We felt so home-y that a bearcut happened.

100% pure gnar

Once the capital of the Pagan Empire, during Bagan’s glory days, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, monasteries, and pagodas were built, scattered throughout the arid plains east of the Irrawaddy River, like chocolate chips on the perfect twenty six square mile cookie. Bad analogy… I might be craving something.

Today, over 2,000 of those remain.over bagan

For the next couple of days, we set off on our bicycles and went on a nonstop marathon of all things Buddhist, going and stopping wherever we pleased. The flat, dusty roads were ours.

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On one occasion we spotted a small dead snake on the side of the road and naturally being the nutty one that I am, I picked it up with a stick, attracting the attention of a local. He seemed sincerely concerned for all of about five seconds. He warned us that the snake was a deadly cobra and demanded that I throw it away immediately and then insisted we take a look at some of his art. Oh, creative businessmen.

Aside from the postcard hustlers–some cute, some obnoxiously insistent, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere–we had the pagodas mostly to ourselves. The boy on the far right, in the orange shirt, whose brief conversational English was flawless, also appears at the end of this video that I found by Visualtraveling

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We entered each pagoda barefooted, our toes and fingers gripping the chipped red claywork, climbing through narrow passages like monkey detectives, to take in the views. Despite it being peak tourist season, Bagan was pretty quiet and for those moments, it felt like the valleys and plains were entirely ours. It was amazing.

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For archaeologists and historians, the area of Bagan is one holy breadbasket of historical evidence and treasures turned preservationist nightmare, an “unmitigated disaster” to some. Over 400-recorded earthquakes shook the area between 1904 and 1975, destroying thousands of the empire’s remains. When the government attempted to repair those damages for the sake of reviving the tourism industry, their lack of architectural integrity and utilization of “inauthentic building materials” ended up desecrating the historical and religious merits that Bagan once represented. As a direct result of this, Bagan has until now been unable to attain UNESCO World Heritage recognition. 

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One late afternoon we hopped on a small boat to cross the Irrawaddy to do a quick hike to visit a monastery where the views were said to be quite lovely, overseeing the entire plain scattered with grand reminders of the once powerful region.

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Cooking fires may have ruined those views but it was still a nice hike. Daniel and I finagled with manual settings on our cameras, and the sunset wasn’t too bad either.

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Bears Gone ‘dagon, or Holy Locks & The Five Bears

On our way into the heart of Yangon from the airport, the peak of the gilded Shwedagon stupa, rising 325 feet, curiously peered over the tree line up on Singuttara Hill – I couldn’t wait to see it up close in person.

Obligatory tiny room photo

Obligatory tiny room photo

After settling into the tiniest room I have ever paid for, the bears headed west in the late afternoon to catch the sunset over Shwedagon. The elder bears sped off and vanished into the distance as if there were a J.Crew factory clearance going on nearby… but there wasn’t. And because the sunset wasn’t looking too promising as it began to vanish into the smoggy clouds, Daniel and I took our time, soaking up everything around us.

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Leaving our shoes at one of the four entrances, we found our way up, up, up until we were blinded by enough sacred gold to make even the most blinged out rapper look like a pleb. Some of the shrines were so flashy and excessive, hyperbolized by harsh fluorescent bulbs that I had to remind myself that no, Elvis was not a Buddhist and therefore you aren’t peeking into a groovy Graceland grotto, and no you are not about to enter a retro-chic discotheque with DJ Sidd spinnin’ meditative beats. But it sure felt that way.

buddhas of gracelandWith that much said, Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world, containing many historical relics…including eight strands of Lord Gautama Buddha’s holy locks. Unfortunately those holy locks were not on display. The pagoda itself was built, rebuilt, and reconstructed, between the 6th and 14th centuries CE, but has undergone several repairs and facelifts in the more recent decades. the gilded stupalook around youuu

Visitors are meant to walk around the pagoda in a clockwise direction, passing eight planetary posts marked by auspicious animals representing each day of the week; Burmese astrology suggests that Buddhists pray and make offerings at their planetary post determined by which day of the week one was born. Ashamedly, I’m not sure any of us actually knew this at the time. Instead we took a series of “hey mom” photos.

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hey bu chang hey bu paulk!

Daniel and I walked around the crowded posts a couple times, getting distracted by the lighting of some holy candles and went photo crazy until we finally spotted the elder bears.

ooohhh candles

lady bears

But before that, I foolishly fell for one of the oldest tourist tricks in the books. Enticed by a myriad of golden-mustard-yellow hues reflecting in the distance. I wandered off into a separate pagoda. I stood off to the side and observed some people praying until a man who looked like an official guard told me it was all right to come in and explore (#warningsigns). When I was finished looking around and was about to leave, the man made the universal gesture for tipping. Crap-olah! I didn’t have any small kyat (#stupidtourist)… Daniel’s mere glare of disappointment on top of reminding me that I had paid him enough to cover that day’s lunch for everyone [and then some] made me feel like the biggest idiot in the world. I didn’t tell the elder bears. Until now (#babybearconfession). The irony is that that specific moment marks the only time I got blatantly cheated on my entire trip and it happened to be at the holiest place in Myanmar (#holyironicjerks). Never again!

that time i fell into a holy trap

A procession with beautiful chants led by monks took place and I stopped for a moment to take in where exactly I was — in the holiest place in Myanmar…holy locccks where are youuuu hiddennnn?  

monk procession sleepy sister bears