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).

***

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.

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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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Bear Family Does Yangon

the bear family

Planning my trip Myanmar, I’ll admit that I didn’t have any set expectations. I shouldn’t even be allowed to use the word “planning”, perhaps convincing four other people to embark on one of my crazy unforgettable dreams would be more appropriate. I can assure you that more energy and sweat was spent obtaining visas and making sure passport photos were printed and cut correctly. In fact so little planning aside from purchasing plane tickets (ahem except for David someone ahem) went into our initial itinerary, as in we may or may not have wandered around aimlessly begging hostels and in one desperate instance a monastery to allow us just two centimeters of floor space for a night.

back streets with monks and a vendor

Did we realize that it was peak season in one of the most sought after mysterious time warps of countries? Meh-beh yes. Did we realize how crazy imbalanced the person to bed ratio would be? Meh-beh no. It seems that those approving visas in tourism affairs have yet to send a kind memo informing those in the hotel industry. Through luck and charm, we unfortunately never got the chance to take shifts in the hammock that I’d brought over nor did we have to sleep in any monasteries or on the streets (though it would’ve been fun to write those posts: “The Bear Family Swings…in Hammocks…Yeah, Hammocks!” or “The Bear Family Goes Homeless Buddhist”).

crossing the street, waving men

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Boarding a hotel shuttle bus whose glory days must have surpassed sixty years, some of us were given free tourism magazines. When I wasn’t busy daydreaming out the window and inhaling the local aromas unpleasantly belched from the many old vehicles that still operate on clunky noise/fresh air contaminating carburetors, I was busy memorizing Burmese phrases out of the tourism magazine with Elaine, sometimes adding a Texan twang (a successful method that once helped me to remember difficult Indonesian phrases during training). Hey Elaine… what’s “hello”? JaY-ZHoo-BaY… noooo, my dear… the other oneeee…MINGAH-LAH-BAH!!!! YESSS! Girl, you so SMART… Jay-ZHoo-BaY (thank you).

Weaving between the back alleys of a market, we crossed a discreet set of train tracks

Weaving between the back alleys of a market, we crossed a discreet set of train tracks

Each set of balconies seemed to have a wire dangling from it attached to a pulley down below... perhaps their carrier pigeons got lazy.

Each set of balconies seemed to have a wire dangling from it attached to a pulley above and a small clip for letters down below… perhaps their carrier pigeons got lazy.

I swear I spent that hour memorizing many more things, but those phrases failed to reappear when we wandered hungrily into a small food stall. I felt like the biggest tourist sitting there among the locals, not knowing how to order because there was no visible menu. Between lots of pointing, nodding, and smiling, they brought something out that resembled nothing but delicious bowls of noodles that left us quite pleased…until dinner blew our minds (and not our wallets).First taste of Yangon

first dinner

Until only a few years ago, before the government adopted Naypyidaw as its new capital, Yangon (aka Rangoon), a quaint southern port city tucked along the Irrawaddy delta, had been flexing its political muscle for nearly 120 years. Over the more recent decades as power has slowly transitioned from militaristic rule to something that currently resembles bits and pieces of an aspiring democracy, Yangon has unintentionally been able to preserve the unique and alluring colonial quality that is rarely found anywhere anymore (except for Cuba and popular Victorian-era lit).

peering into an alley

old colonial style apartments

Some young men cutting and polishing precious gems in the back of a shop

Some young men cutting and polishing precious gems in the back of a shop

An attempt to see the romanticized Bay of Bengal was in actuality met by tall, restrictive barbwire fences, train tracks, and a non-conspicuous looking warehouse with a corrugated facade. Maybe we had made a wrong turn and missed the mock Jersey Shore boardwalk selling Jell-O shooters and all you can eat funnel cakes (that post would’ve been called “Bear Family Receives An Unexpected Visit From Sir Stomachache and A Madame Hangover, Respectively”). We were a little bit disappointed but not enough to stop us from exploring.street cuties

We ended up wandering around, watching our every step to dodge the blood-red betel nut chew-splatters that decoratively stained the sidewalks until we unexpectedly discovered one of a supposed thirty-six (as of only three months ago or so) [discreetly placed] functioning ATM machines in the entire country of over sixty million people. Interesting fact: The kyat’s largest bank note is K10,000 which is about $11. But since ATM machines only dispensed K5,000 notes, it wasn’t hard to make it rain with only $50.

Fashion emergency: Someone should tell this guy that any self-respecting rapper hasn’t swagged around in studded denim button-ups since…NEVER

Fashion emergency: Someone should tell this guy that any self-respecting rapper hasn’t swagged around in studded denim button-ups since…NEVER

Plus! Daniel’s post: Burma Photos: Part I, Temples and Towns.

Up next: Bears Gone ‘dagon

The Bear Family Chronicles

Not too long ago, Daniel and I boarded a plane bound for Bangkok. Besides marveling at all of the modern amenities of a true, functional world-class city that undeniably emanates legitimate, thoughtful urban and social planning (imagine: handicapped accessible sidewalks…a clean, safe mass transit system…the most gruesome cigarette advertisements that I have ever seen…and affordable alcohol…okay, that last one is sort of unrelated but I still wholeheartedly approved). Traveling to Bangkok served as a place of importance to us. Not only would it be the primary meeting hub for us to reunite with our older siblings after what has felt like eons (!!) but it would also be the only convenient place for us to obtain express visas for our real destination: Myanmar.

Myanmar, also known to many as Burma (I can only say Burma if I use a haughty, elite colonialist accent: bUUUUhr-mAHHHH), easily climbed its way up to the top of my travel list upon hearing about the exceptional time that some of my most well traveled friends, Hannah and Ben, had recently had. However, if I had known about the epic journey that Rambo had once experienced, toughing his way through the overgrown jungles of Northern Thailand, likely beheading a couple of wild beasts along the way, perhaps I would’ve tried a lot harder to visit sooner… but really, I couldn’t have…

Myanmar has been living in isolation from the majority of the (especially Western) world, subsisting primarily on an IV of never-ending, blooding-sucking support from China. Until as recently as 2010, foreigners weren’t allowed to freely wander into the country without their movements being strictly controlled or monitored. But the metaphoric sleeping dragon has finally been awakened by the calls of the globalization beast. With recent elections promising larger strides towards a transparent democracy, reforms have been rapidly underway — most notably with the 2010 release of Aung San Suu Kyi, national hero turned international icon of peace and democracy, not to mention 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient (among many other international recognitions), who had been in and out of house arrest since the early-90s. With the rest of the world’s investors and extraction companies eyeing the country like hungry, emaciated wolves, yearning to get their piece in this abundantly rich bed of natural resources, the country is transforming… fast, really, really fast, succumbing to both the conveniences and evils of globalization. I wanted to experience Myanmar while it still had its sleepy, humble, post-colonial charm. Is this what I got? To an extent.

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Before the chronicles continue any further — an introduction to The Bear Family. Why the silly name? I don’t really know. Essentially we were all family. David adopted the name upon our second day together and it stuck throughout our travels. As time went on, it grew to become more endearing, especially once we realized how isolated we felt from the actual cozy holiday events with our families happening thousands of miles away, without us.

mama bear

The matriarch, Mama Bear: Elaine (my older sister). She is the resilient, undeniably pretty, energizer bunny of all things. Eats like a truck driver and still stays so slim. I have never seen anyone carry around hot sauce and chili flakes in their purse with as much pride as she does. Do I have a bomb-diggity sister? Uh, duh. Did I also mention that she’s an incredibly talented jeweler? Shameless advertising? Meh-beh.

papa bear

The patriarch, Papa Bear: David (Daniel’s older brother). The aficionado of fun, ice cream, and making friends, the gung-ho-let’s-go, will persuade you to follow him anywhere if you get caught in those charming baby blues. May forget to purchase plane tickets and bring his credit card to places of importance.
auntie bearThe voice of logic, Auntie Bear: Erin (Elaine’s childhood friend). The professional, the calm voice of all reason and promoter of equilibrium. Need hand-sanitizer? Bandaids? This girl’s got your back. Wanna know the current exchange rate of Thai Baht or Malay Ringgit to the US Dollar? Psssh, who needs Google when you’ve got Er? PLUS: Recipient of Honorary Sister Award.

brother bearThe Bear family bookkeeper, Brother Bear: Daniel. The impressively organized tabs-keeper, explorer extraordinaire, fellow-wanderer, not to mention quiiite handsome and a kid charmer in the villages. Give him a soccer ball, he’ll bring you some friends that redefine adorable.

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The wandering ATM, Baby Bear: Me. I may or may not have wandered off a couple of times to capture special shots or maybe just because I enjoy taking the road less traveled. And I may or may not have become a money lender, interest-free (man, I’m a nice person). Sometimes I lend my camera to boogerful children, this photo is a result of that.

Up Next: Bear Family Does Yangon

90 Seconds Inside the Traveller’s Log

In the past month or so, I’ve been watching a lot of Inside the Actor’s Studio. James Lipton really hit the jackpot with landing that job. For some reason it took me a long time to realize that ITAS really is one of the best series Bravo has ever produced, aside from the Real Housewives franchise (of course). Generally though, I love reading interviews with unique and talented people — the rawness and honesty adds an empathetic factor that you don’t usually associate with many people of status and power. With a lot of recent Ramadan down time and being ever so inspired by Mr. Lipton and his interviewees, I thought it would be fun to interview friends of mine doing unique things…

Staying true to our Charlottesvillian-Jeffersonian roots — wine tasting in style

Ben Paviour. Swaggin’ since 1988. Fellow Charlottesvillian. Pisces. A neighbor (North Downtown Crew 4 Lyf). A close friend of mine growing up. We first met in Mrs. Edwards’ class in the 3rd grade, but he doesn’t remember. In 4th grade, I remember the teacher giving him the task to erase a huge detailed diagram of a penis off of the chalkboard after the girls and boys were split up to have ‘the talk’. He was too short to erase the entire thing alone. In 7th grade, my havoc-wrecking girlfriends and I once decorated his porch with candy (there may have been glitter involved?) and he threatened to throw kitty litter on us while holding a hose on the verge of bursting. He’s an extraordinary guy. Probably the most mature of all of my friends in high school. Incredibly articulate. After graduating from Wash U in St. Louis, he moved to The Mission district in San Francisco, where he wrote about some of his most bizarre experiences (some of my favs: 75 minutes in an isolation tank, online dating, craigslist pranks, Chinatown delicacies, Pagan rituals, a cougar convention, gay pride festival debauchery, attending a burlesque 101 session). He’d been itching to get out of his Oakland county office and do something new, which brought him to over to SEA where he kicked off his big trip in Laos, for our reunion — and since April, he’s been been travelling solo around the region. Now he’s in India. He’s been creating insightful 90 second videos documenting people and their culture, their traditions and how these places are succumbing and adjusting to global modernization while still staying true to their identities and traditions. The chaos and beauty of travel as seen and written with such humor and sensitivity are awesome, just awesome…( I envy him for having these experiences) did I mention he has really excellent taste in music? Check out his blawwwg: 90 Second Travel. Here’s my interview with Ben —

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Elle Chang: Can you name a particular moment or place where you’ve thought to yourself ‘SHIT, I just got REALLY ripped off’? What happened? 

Ben Paviour: The only one that comes to mind was a replacement mp3 player I bought in Savanahket, Laos. First mistake was buying any sort electronics in a place like that. It was a fake iPod – I knew that when I bought it – but I spent $20 and didn’t bother to try it out. It turned out to be basically unusable — its language couldn’t be changed from Lao, had a battery life of an hour, and none of my songs played. I was stuck listening to pre-loaded Lao pop songs, which is what I was trying to avoid in the first place.

EC: If you could do one place over again, where would it be, what would you change about this second visit? 

BP: I’d visit the parts of Myanmar that require lots of advance planning/permits. They’ve got everything from Himalayan foothills of the far north to an untouched coastline along the southern border with Thailand that is inhabited by nomadic groups of sea pygmies. Sea pygmies! 

EC: Is there any ritual that you have to do in each country you visit? (some people feel the need to buy shot glasses or some kitschy souvenir, or brave local delicacies)

BP: Basically as soon as I arrive in a new place I put my stuff in my room and start walking. I spend most of my first day or two getting a little lost, pigging out on street food, sweating buckets, and then sitting for awhile in the nearest air conditioning.  My first orders of business are getting fed and getting oriented, in that order.

EC: If you could have left three things behind before you embarked on this trip, what would it have been? On the flip side, three things you wish you could have brought? 

BP: My 2006 MacBook was on its last legs before I brought it to edit the travel videos I’ve been making. Now that it’s failed once and for all, it’s just a brick in my backpack until I find a place to sell it. 

There’s not much I wish I brought. It’s all cheaper and more convenient to get here. Except sunscreen. You can never have too much sunscreen.

EC: Most unique cultural custom you’ve come across? 

BP: I just got back from staying for almost a week at a Buddhist temple in northern Thailand. I got to participate in the rituals of the monks, including alms rounds. At 6:10 every morning except Buddha Day, I set out with a monk and novice to walk along the towns main road and collect food. It was something else to walk behind these two middle aged, barefoot white guys as they chanted blessings to locals bowed before them. 

We’d come back to the temple after an hour and a half loaded with curries, breads, watermelon, soy milk, and even microwaveable hamburgers from 7-11. It felt strangely like Halloween. We’d take the food we needed for the day (the monk and novice couldn’t eat after noon) and the rest would go to kids as they left school, maybe to some of the same families that provided it in the first place.

EC: Place with the most aggressive buskers/men trying to shovel you places?

BP: I’m writing this on the plane to India, which I’m sure will take the cake. To date, Vietnam’s touts were the most relentless. In its touristy parts, I’d say I averaged 3-4 “where you are going’s?” from moot or tuk tuk drivers every block. That sentence is really the refrain of the Southeast Asia tourist circuit. It barely happened in Myanmar or outside of tourist hubs, though.

EC: A particular time/moment when you REALLY missed home? What happened? 

BP: I could have teleported when I got a migraine on a bus in Vietnam, with some woman screaming at the driver, an old man screaming into his cell phone, and the driver honking at anything that moved. I ended up throwing up in my laundry bag. I thought people would notice but no one seemed to care. For some reason, a lot of people in this neck of the woods seem to throw up on buses.

Luckily, I found a nice hotel with brand new everything for $10 a night and watched the Nationals lose to the Phillies on ESPN. For some reason, whenever I’ve been away for awhile I miss baseball. At home, who cares.

But I get mildly homesick pretty frequently. Before going to Myanmar, and then again before India, I’ve second guessed myself at the airport and thought, I’m sure Yangon is nice and all, but all I really want is to eat dinner with my family or stay up late talking to roommates. Then before I know it I’m leaving the place and regretting not having more time there. But the grass is always greener…

EC: Favorite book read on trip… did it help you to connect more to your surroundings or did it serve as an escape? 

BP: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. It’s a kind of escape, in that it takes place in America and follows the mostly banal things that happen to a family there. There’s a lot of dark comedy; my favorite was the description of a depressed academic who sends his family random textbooks, wrapped in aluminum foil and those mailing address labels from charities, as Christmas presents.

EC: Words of advice to those wanting to tackle SEA or do solo-travel?

BP: Stop worrying. The hardest part of the trip was the decision to take it. As long as you’ve got a little savings — a thousand a month will buy you backpacker luxury, and less than six hundred is totally feasible in most of the region — the rest will take care of itself.  

Don’t over plan from home. I just talked to an American who booked all of his connecting flights around Asia when he was still home. He’s since realized he didn’t need to fly, doesn’t like his original itinerary, and now he’s out a couple thousand dollars.

I could go on forever: live in the moment, maintain a sense of humor, blah blah blah. It’s all corny motivational poster material until you go through experiences that teach it, whether that’s travel or something else. I remember when I wrote for our high school newspaper and I was interviewing students on new years resolutions and a girl told me that hers was, “get better at doing me.” I snickered then but now I think that’s ideally what solo travel teaches.

EC: Approximate number of hours spent on public transportation? 

BP: Maybe two weeks in total? I don’t mind it until around 15 hours. It’s time to take a break from all of the stimulation.

EC: Public transportation horror story?

BP: Again, India awaits. But I’ve almost been left behind by buses twice now while I take care of business. There was a bus ride I took after you and Joe left from Luang Prabang in Laos to Vang Vieng. We were stopped for two hours by cranes that seemed, for no particular reason, to be dumping dirt in the road. The radiator kept over heating, and the driver’s solution was to just pour some water on it until it happened again, 15 minutes later. Then we hit and killed a dog.

EC: Have you had one of those ‘top of the world’ moments? Where were you? Alone/with others? 

BP: The first was with you all for Pi Mai in Laos. It’s one of those things that if you went back to maybe 5th or 6th grade, and said, hey, when you’re 24, you all are gonna have a reunion with these people in a country called Laos, in this giant debaucherous Buddhist water festival…

From wine tastings to becoming avid Beerlao fans, we know how to keep it classy. Yes, my left eye is covered in smeared mascara.

Another was the first night of a three day trek in Myanmar. The four of us stopped for the evening at this mountaintop pagoda overlooking these huge ridges. There was a sublime sunset, shooting stars, and no one around except the four smiley men who served us meals in their bamboo hut. By the morning, we were literally inside of a cloud. And then there’s all of the people I’ve met and got back in touch with on this trip, as well as locals who’ve gone to absurd ends to make me feel welcome. It’s all about the company.

EC: Top ten playlist at the moment

BP: I don’t have many songs that associate just with this trip (aside from Carly Rae, of course) but here are some I’ve been listening to recently, mostly chosen for variety:

  1. Skin and Bone by The Kinks
  2. Lawrence by Girls
  3. Streets Tonight by Araabmuzik
  4. Mistaken for Strangers by The National
  5. Get in the October Cart, Pig by Deadmau5
  6. Apocalypse dreams by Tame Impala
  7. The Galway Girl by Steve Earle
  8. This Space by Royksopp
  9. Moan (Trentemoller vocal remix) By Trentemoller
  10. Suffragette City by David Bowie 

EC: Pick up any interesting local music? 

BP: No, it’s really the only world music I’ve come across that’s really just unbearable. Southeast Asia loves 80s ballads about teenage lovers who don’t return each others text messages. Or at least that’s what I’ve gotten out of the music videos they blast on every bus ride.

EC: Strangest thing consumed?

BP: I had some fried flies in Laos. The texture was a little too filmy for my taste but not bad. 

EC: If you were given $1,000 today, would you extend your trip or save it for your return home?

BP: It goes so much farther out here that it’s really not close. But that’s a little bit of travel bravado. If someone handed my a thou and a ticket home tomorrow I’d be very okay with that. For a week or two. Then more travel.

Many thanks to Ben, for answering all of my silly questions and typing detailed responses on his swanky new iPad. Continue to do yo thang and be safe!

Until our next reunion in SF !