Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fierce Adventure

I hate bedbugs.

I hate leeches, roaches, and rats. I hate sunburn. I hate touts. I hate arriving alone in a strange city past midnight. I hate traveler’s diarrhea. I especially hate it on a bumpy 12-hour ride on a bus with no toilet. I hate scams, even when I’m (occasionally) smart enough to outwit them. 

These are all things I’ve experienced within the past six months of my around-the-world trip. Yet the truth is that I am happier than I’ve ever been, and I cannot imagine a more amazing life than the one I am living right now. Everything I’ve worked, planned, saved for, and dreamed of the past several years? It’s even better than I hoped it would be.

Bring it on, Year of the Dragon!

In the past six months – since I last posted in this long-neglected blog – I’ve visited seven different countries: Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and my current location, Myanmar. It’s been sensory overload – bright pink petals fallen on a dusty footpath of the sleepy  4,000 islands, the ever-changing labyrinths of Hanoi’s traffic, Burmese women with whorls of yellow face paint streaked across their cheeks and foreheads, an isolated Hmong village funeral where all the men get drunk and spin in circles while blowing banshee-like tunes on old hornpipes, impossibly beautiful sunsets of rose and gold on Railay’s sandy beaches, a boyfriend acquired as my sole souvenir in the clouded mountains of Cameron Highlands. It’s been difficult for me to write about my travels, as I can never identify an ending to this story. There has been no time for reflection, just a continual dizzying forward momentum.

But in Myanmar, a country I chose to visit simply because I know so little about it, time is slow. You can almost see it pass as falling grains of sand in an hourglass. I am traveling alone, and the need to document my travels flares up again, not coincidentally along with the pain that flares in my sprained knee. I am forced to sit still and reflect. 

In a rare cafĂ© that offers Internet, I share a table with three other women – a girl from Hong Kong and two Spanish sisters.  As solo female travelers, these are my sisters on the road. 

Don't mess.

We are strong. (“I’m not paying an extra $5 to the bus driver to be taken to our actual destination. I’ll walk 11 km before giving money to the scammer,” I proclaim, at a different city in Myanmar, jumping off the bus and leading several other travelers to a pickup truck where we ride the last 11 km into town for only $1.) 

We are brave. (“The black market money changers in Yangon cheated us,” Mettea tells me. “They swapped all our money around very quickly, and after we walked away and counted it again, we realized they stole $100 from us. I was so mad that I marched back into the booth and snatched back my $100. Then I grabbed another $100 bill because I felt if they could steal that money from me, then I had the right to steal the same amount from them.” Medea pauses a moment. “Do you think that was wrong?”) 

We all have mothers who worry about us. (“Hi Mom! Thailand’s great!” Natalia messages her mother, believing it better not to worry her with minor details, such as the actual, somewhat unstable country she chose to visit.)

The girls and I first met at the bus station in Bagan, where, contrary to the promises of the different travel agents who sold us the bus tickets there, we did NOT arrive at “7 or 8 am” but at a chilling, pitch-black 4 am. Rickshaw drivers circle foreigners at the bus stop like predators circling their prey, but we instinctively gather together and set out on our own.

“We like walking. We want to take exercise,” explains one of the girls to one aggressive rickshaw driver who follows us.

“It’s a lovely night for a walk,” I add. When I speak, my breath leaves my mouth as little puffs of chilled air. We all stamp our feet from the cold.

The driver laughs at us, not unkindly, and leaves us in peace.

The dark sky is salted with stars. There are no street lamps, but the moon’s dim light guides us. We walk past one, two ancient, bell-shaped temples. A small boy curls his body in sleep as he lies on white-washed stairs leading to one of them.

"sunrises in Bagan are unforgettable"
(Lonely Planet's Guide to Southeast Asia)

Our group of foreigners-met-by-chance walks on to several hotels. Their gates are locked and no one answers when we tiredly rattle the iron bars. We notice a cement ledge outside one of the hotels. A guy from Argentina pulls out his sleeping bag and we huddle beneath it, waiting for morning. As the early rays of dawn lightly redden the sky, a line of young monks clad in maroon robes silently marches by.

Idoia, whose native language is Spanish, tends to produce charming phrases when speaking English. The moment is, as she describes it, “fierce adventure.”


  1. Wahoo! You're back! Please tell me you're back, right? I really loved this post, so I guess it was worth the wait. But, I find it really ironic that you don't update your blog until you get to Myanmar. Huh? That's usually the place where people have to stop updating their blog because there's no Internet. Way to be contrary. :)
    And what is this I hear about a boyfriend, huh?

    1. Sally, yay! You may be the ONLY reader/fellow blogger who hasn't not given up on me. And I couldn't even reply to your comment earlier because after I posted this, Myanmar blocked my blog. I guess this posting was just too controversial. (Maybe the thieving moneychanger bit?)

      Anyways, I don't want to go all retro-Tom-Cruise-jumping-on-the-couch-about-Katie-Holmes, but yeah, the boyfriend's great; he's my favourite souvenir. Well, him OR the silk dress I had tailored in Vietnam. Kinda a tie, I guess.