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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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