Saturday, November 29, 2014

Family, Friends and Strangers

Four countries and three flights in three days with the worst cold or flu I've had in years has left me worse for wear as I approach my decent into chilly JFK New York City. My healthy glow already starting to crack and peel with the dehumidified air run though my ANA flight, I'm already missing balmy Bangkok. But let me start from the top.

On the cool, crisp, star- filled night Colin and his trusty steed Lucky give both Laura and myself a bumpy ride to a location they swore would be ideal for sunrise watching. In a city where the day's events are planned entirely around the rising and setting of the sun I trusted the local and let he, with his portable Buddhist hymns and the clickity clack of Lucky's feet along one of the two paved roads in town, lead the way through the darkened dawn.

When Laura and I realized that he was bringing is back to Temple #349 on the map, where we'd witnessed the Chagall colored sunset just a few hours before all we could do was smile and hold on - those rides are not smooth sailing, trust me. The air was sharp with a fresh morning and the ascent up the pitch black side of an ancient structure no easy feat. When the perfect spot is located, we post, and we wait.

The sunrises slowly. It seems to take forever as the sky turns from starry black to pale blue. You think it is over and just when you're ready to either a) knock the annoying Japanese tourists who are wearing lights on their heads and creating a noisy production to your immediate left with their picture taking off the top of the temple or b) pack up your Canon and call it a day - it happens. The fire ball known as the sun makes it's appearance and it all changes. You're not moving, not for a second. Your transfixed and your sitting right there, to see this all the way through.

Laura and I had watched some dirty hippies tune out of the tourist trap and into some smooth jams the night before and Laura signed on. She had her ear buds in early and a serenity washed over her already luminous face before dawn even broke. I tend to be a bit more stubborn, take the longer road to realization. It wasn't until the sun showed it's face and shone on mine that I decided to follow suit and, with limited options on my iPhone, it was a sad music makes me happy moment with classic rock and power ballads filling my ears with harmonies and my heart with pain.

Having promised to take my father with me on every trip here on, we have visited the clear blue waters of the Caribbean and shared a quiet early morning in rural Thailand. With a morning as powerful as this, I felt it the best time to share a powerful moment with my father, and leave just a little of him here, atop a beautifully sculpted, ancient Buddhist temple in the still untainted Myanmar. I wish he could have loved it in life, but by god I am going to make sure he experiences it in spirit.

Balloons over Bagan is a tourist attraction for more of the blue haired traveler and though I could not afford to take one of those big bags of hot air up into the early morning sky, witnessing two dozen balloons released into the wild with guitar licks tickling my ears it was a powerful and beautiful morning I will not soon forget.

Back in the horse cart and back to The Golden Myanmar Guest House we rushed to grab our bags, feed our faces and say goodbye to this makeshift family who, for the few days we were here, felt like ours.

Laura and I were sad to go, and sad to know that the next couple of days would be a blur of taxis, and buses and planes on our way to Mandalay and then, back to Bangkok.

The bus ride to Mandalay was long and warm and relatively bumpless as it operated on the single lane highway functioning as the smoothed out road to the destruction of an indigenous culture, and the epic levels at which the single television was playing throughout the duration of the 5+ hour bus ride - deafening. Luckily after my midday nap I was woken up for a stop in the middle of nowhere to piss over a hole, be hustled into another Myanmar buffet and hop back on the bus for what I can only imagine was a made for TV movie. I do have to respect that the worse the television is the more easily it translates without the assistance of language. The plot seemed to center around some Burmese pop star and his tumultuous relationship with his very tall girlfriend and some sort of contest in which the winner would be able to marry said pop star. Not a clear path as to what was going on - but I think I got the gist. The nuance of the humor was lost on me, however, the bus rocked with uproarious laughter on more than one occasion so it must have been hilarious.

When you land in a place called Mandalay you conjure up thoughts of an oasis in the dry dry desert. Palm fronds and sheer genie pants. I could almost feel the heavily scented mist doused with strange spices from the far east breeze across my face. What I was met with instead was a throng of very loud very aggressive men nearly beating the bus door down trying to secure a cab fare to whatever destination we had in mind. After prying our way through the doors and out into the dusty surroundings we hopped in a cab with a man who was not physically accosting me and made the short trip to Hotel A.D. 1 about which we had read mediocre reviews on accommodation and amazing reviews on breakfast. You can see where our hearts truly lie.

Dropping our bags on the third floor we went out to see what Mandalay had to offer. We knew we only had a short time there and the cab ride in, though informative, was not visually impressive. Circles were made and it would appear that Mandalay is a blue collar city, filled with merchants and motorbikes not servicing the tourist population, as is so common in Thailand - but functioning as a real city - worked by and for the people of Myanmar. We were greeted slightly less openly, as we had been in both Yangon and Bagan, but the people were curious nonetheless and after Laura sampled some street omelet of sorts and I procured one of the most nauseating sandwiches I have ever seen and we had to move on from the inner city, in which we were firmly situated and head out to the U Bein bridge, apparently the sight to see while here and, just like everything else we have found in Myanmar, totally dependent on the rising and setting of the sun. We were hoping to catch the latter.

And the latter we did. After the wordsmith that was our cab driver who sat in complete silence the entire 20 minute drive to the dock dropped us off and informed us he would wait in a nearby parking lot - the way cabbies seem to work here - you pay for both the back and forth - we were off for our romantic evening. This long, teak bridge's sturdiness is questionable but popularity undeniable with boat loads of silver fox tourists squeezed into the bay, cameras on necks. Laura and I opted for the long walk, from dock to dock during which we chatted with suspicious monks, helped some local girl with her English-  apparently an outing her family takes multiple times a week to perfect her language skills and assist in her future chemistry degree and noshed on some lollies that had most certainly been sitting at the dock of this bay since the early 90's.

As we strolled, and chatted we got to watch the sky change colors and, once the boater and fisherman made their way to land the water was like glass, gorgeous and clean, untouched and still. We were saddened that it was our last evening together in Southeast Asia, a unique luxury neither of us took for granted but Laura had her studies and I had my impending life changing and stroke inducing moves to make.

The following morning was met with a heavy cough and the promised breakfast that A.D. 1 hosted. It was an amazing spread, at least for those with fully functioning taste buds and a head that didn't feel like it was in an Adam's Family vice, for those who had laboured breath - it was just food to shove in my face. Though I will co-sign as far as hostels or guest house included breakfasts go - this is second to none.

Bags on backs and a 20 minute walk through town to the Air Asia shuttle was treacherous and sweaty, but well worth the free bus ride to the airport and the debacle with the old Burmese woman who seemed to not see a large white woman sitting in front of her and literally walked INTO me and sat her bag on my lap as if I were one of the built in Ronald's at the local McDonald's used for commemorative photos and public acknowledgements of profane language.

It was somewhere over Southeast Asia with a wonderful woman who has proven to be a wonderful friend - so why in the hell am I stressing about bills and doctors appointments, the logistics of life as well as those big ticket items that seem to work best when you pick a lane and go.

I'm now heading back 3 days early, and exactly 4 weeks from my departure date, wondering if I made the right choice, wondering what the right choice even means anymore. If such a thing even exists.

A bus ride, a very lengthy layover (see: I slept on a bench) at the BKK airport, a flight to Tokyo, another layover and then a 14 hour flight, all with SARS coursing through my veins was a challenge. It was exhausting. I felt like I was dying and the 2 hour cab ride to follow it up almost had me in. Then I had a thought:

These are the people that celebrate with us, that help is get through the rough spots; that shape out world.

Throughout my month in Southeast Asia, a month I spent exploring new lands and grieving the loss of my original travel-mate I encountered all threw of the above. My three wise men, my arch angels, my holy trinity of travel.

To begin my journey I was accompanied by a woman who surpassed the title of friend many years ago and became so much more, family nearly two decades ago.

Then I met a total stranger who, on a level maybe only a stranger could, understood what I going through and made me feel slightly less alone in my sadness, if only for a few days.

And I finished my journey with an old colleague who has proven herself to be a very dear friend, and a very loved one at that.

For those of you who know me, those of you who talk to me, and those of you who feel comfortable being straight with me, remind me I said this : it would appear that travel is a lot like life in a smaller, more concentrated dosage. There are moments of excitement, moments of struggle and frustration, moments of peace and lots of times you feel like throwing in the towel and going home but in my experience, each as every time - I'm sure glad I did it.

I'd like to think that is how my dad felt.