Flickr, though, I find to be swell these days. When they redesigned it earlier this year a lot of internet people pooped all over it, but I like it better now, and my reasons for liking it are indicative of how bad I am at social media. Basically, I think the new design is great because when I want to mindlessly scroll through photos — specifically my photos, specifically when I’m bored — they’re arranged a lot prettier now than they used to be. They’re Instagram-y. Is this why we travel? So we can have nice mosaics that, once we swipeswipeswipe back a few pages, look like this?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel now, versus how I felt when we came back from Korea. Back then I had an urgent need to display stuff. The cheap watercolors, the masks, the photos, the figurines: While we were still busy doing actual, important things like looking for jobs and a place to live in DC, about 80% of my available brainspace was somehow taken up with thoughts of knickknackery. I knew that if I didn’t get a chance to decorate soon I would disappear into a pit of madness, dark crazy nesting madness, and down in that deep shadowy nest-pit I would scoop up armfuls of our things and throw them in the air and twirl around and cackle, gibbering wildly, rolling about as the things fell all around me, sort of like Scrooge McDuck or Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, except instead of rolling around in money I would be rolling around in physical reassurances that we were, despite all other evidence to the contrary, interesting people leading interesting lives.
I don’t really have this feeling anymore. Well, of course I do, for what is that screenshot of my Flickr page if not a virtual apartment wall that I can come home to, stand in front of, hands on hips, saying “Yep”? But then again, really, I don’t, I don’t have that feeling. We have at least two times the number of knickknacks now, knickknacks that scream “I AM SO FUCKING WORLDLY LOOK AT ME AH,” and almost all of them are still in boxes at my parents’ house, and I rarely think of them, and when I do it is more stressful than anything else (e.g. ugh, it is going to cost a million dollars to frame all the crap I want to frame).
So much of what I idly read on the internet these days has to do with 1) America’s slow decline and the way it is screwing with the career paths and assumptions and futures of young people, and 2) said people who say “fuck it” and have some kind of privileged, bougie 20-something adventure instead: Biking across the country, hiking the Appalachian trail, founding a start-up, backpacking around Europe, starting an artisanal muffin shop with your bffs, or, of course, joining the Peace Corps (lol, losers). Reading about these kinds of things when I was 22 or 25 was excruciating. Reading about these things now inspires almost no emotion in me. Like, oh good, this article about some chick’s time WWOOFing in New Zealand will be a nice quick read during my lunch break. I’ll just keep that open in that tab there, and then I’ll finish writing these emails real fast, and then I’ll get my glass container of lentil salad out of the office fridge, and then I’ll have a quick banter with my coworkers on my walk back to my desk, and then I’ll have myself a read while I shovel my lunch in my face! Maybe afterwards I’ll even let myself scroll through my Flickr photos, real quick, just to feel superior about my adventures! But then, hey, right back to work. And then if I get enough stuff done this afternoon maybe I’ll let myself go to CVS and buy a Diet Coke. It’s the little things, ha ha ha!
I have no desire to travel or live abroad again, any time in the near future. At first, realizing that I felt this way was like realizing that I was missing a limb. But now it feels like a relief. I spent the three years between Korea and Mongolia becoming increasingly crazed about the possibility that we would not ever go overseas again. I would read those articles about WWOOFers, and I would feel doors and windows closing. I would imagine myself in five or ten years, not having scratched the live-abroad-again itch, and I felt horrified, knowing how miserable Future Me would be — sad, frumpy, mundane 35-year-old Future Me. Filled with regrets! Regrets and longing, and rage, and pizza.
But now I wonder if I was wrong. Did we really need to go to Mongolia? If we hadn’t, if we had stayed here instead, would I have still arrived at this place of deep, deep boringness, and satisfaction with my boringness, and indeed, a desire to become even more boring, as fast as possible?
(here is a piece of information I should have started this entry with but whatever: My job might go away soon, and so for the eleventyfifth time in my adult life I am on the cusp of unemployment, thinking about “the next step,” which is, as always, a lot of fun)
So the other day I submitted a job application to a major defense contractor. I did not even really understand the job listing but I could tell that I was almost qualified to do it, and this made me excited. Very excited. I would totally do that inexplicable job, or any inexplicable corporate/government job, in a hot minute because a) money, b) insurance, c) “an opportunity to gain new skills and grow within an organization” haha, like, why am I putting that in scare quotes? I am being earnest! All I want to do is disappear into some gigantic company for the next ten years and make a reasonable salary and do new things with new people and add meaty, opaque bullet points to my LinkedIn, and I DON’T CARE WHO KNOWS IT!
BTW do you think all this is because I’ve been off hormonal birth control for the last year? I tried Googling various combinations of “hormonal birth control + life + restlessness + anxiety about future + worldview” but, no luck so far.
Too Much Information, guys, sorry.
But then of course there are moments. A few months ago I was at the mall with my mom and we saw a couple of Buddhist monks up ahead of us, walking past the Abercrombie and Fitch. Young guys, heads shaved, orange robes, sandals, cell phones. Maybe from Thailand, maybe from Laos, or Cambodia, or Vietnam. I felt the smallest pang, first for them (oh my god so far from home) and then for myself (aw remember when these guys were everywhere, what a visual treat that was, and then remember those two in Battambang who wanted to practice their English with us, they were so sweet, etc) and then for them, again (what is it like to be the living symbol of privileged carefree travel to eat-pray-love-type fuckheads everywhere you go?). And then I probably went home and read some of my blog entries from our first backpacking trip. I probably didn’t look back at my Flickr photos from that trip, though, because it’s been long enough and my equipment upgrades have been substantial enough and my skillz have improved enough (or at least I’d like to think so, don’t try to disabuse me of that notion) that these days I have a hard time looking at an early travel photo of mine without thinking: oh yeah, good one, moron.
Anyway! That, basically, is the real reason for me to not stop blogging or taking photos or whatever: Because at some point in the future I will be bored at work (please, god, please let me be at work) and it will be nice for Future Me to sit in front of the screen, and eat her pizza, and remember what happened in 2013.
Maybe I should move this whole shebang to Tumblr, though.
Well either way, coming up sometime soonish: My thoughts about this one dude on the Metro who talked to me!
I’ve hijacked at least four conversations in the past year with a monologue about Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, and whatever other social-media sites there are that encourage people to document their lives in steady dribs and drabs. Specifically I like to talk about how, thanks in part to the format of these sites, fewer and fewer people are doing meaty, longform journaling these days. “And don’t you think that’s kind of too bad?” I usually ask, leaning in and making really insane eye contact with my interlocutor/victim.
With my WordPress blog, my twelve years of archives (lol wtf), and my almost total lack of a presence on any of the aforementioned social-media sites, it is pretty obvious that what I really mean to say is “and don’t you think that’s kind of too bad how so few people are like me?” I also realize that whether or not people are writing multiple paragraphs about their lives, on the internet, on a regular basis, is possibly the most uninteresting, least conversation-worthy effect that Facebook et. al. is having on our lives. But I am usually kind of drunk when I launch myself on this rant, helplessly sloshing my drink around while I gesture, and even though I always want people to come back with “oh my god you’re right” or “you are so stupid and wrong and I will tell you why,” nobody ever really has anything to say, besides “oh” or “I guess” or “you’ve tried to talk with me about this before, and it’s still boring.”
I bring this up because I think this has been the longest break I’ve taken from blogging, ever, in my adult life (again lol), and this is not because I’ve started posting mad gifs on Tumblr, or because I’ve been writing detailed status updates on Facebook, or because I’ve been pouring myself and my creative energies into tweeting.* So I was wrong, microblogging and social media are not sapping our collective willingness to sit down and write and reflect at length, or even sapping my willingness to do these things. Most people, normal people, see the value and fun in using social media to actively share their lives with other people, bit by bit. I, on the other hand, will just be over here, in my own little spiderhole, mumbling long rambling things to myself every few months or so, because apparently that’s the way I like it.
*Will I ever do these things? Every once in a while I read something that mentions the correct way to use social media — sharing interesting links and articles in addition to posting things about your life; commenting; playing games with your friends, basically doing anything besides being a silent lurker, slipping deeper and deeper into jealousy-induced malaise — and I wonder whether I should attempt to do these things, whether I should be more well-adjusted and participatory on the internet in general and social media in particular. But then I realize that would mostly just involve me posting endless links to New Yorker articles with the caption, “Interesting” (and this would be in addition to how I start every other sentence IRL with “Oh that reminds me of that article in the New Yorker last week,” which is already pretty unbearable for me, and I’m not even the one who has to listen to myself). I mean: I am really, really bad at coming up with funny things to say in comments or tweets; my cell phone pictures are always ugly and depressing; I don’t think I’m ever going to get into playing games (unless they’re like brain-fitness games, because I was reading about that in the New Yorker recently and it was really interesting and lololol help me, I can’t stop).
So, hello again, blog. How have you been. Sorry I’ve been away. I’ve been thinking, and working, and making a gif or two:
Although I’ve allowed a couple months to pass, here, you will be relieved to know that I have at least been thinking about blogging. In fact, I have even been writing down ideas in a little notebook as they come to me, in the hopes of doing some kind of “Dispatches From Unemployment” type update. But alas: I have no idea what most of my reminders refer to anymore.
For example, I see here that the first one says “Maybe Tomorrow Will Be Different.” I know this came from some conversation at the end of the day, where I said the phrase in question, probably while gazing wistfully out a darkened window, and Ryan responded in a Lifetime Movie announcer voice: “Maybe Tomorrow Will Be Different: The Katie L***** Story.” But what was it I thought might be different? Maybe tomorrow I will find a full-time job? Maybe tomorrow Ryan will hear back about grad school? Maybe tomorrow we will no longer be living with my parents (hi, Mom and Dad!)? Who can say? Not I.*
Regardless, a few somewhat large life events have occurred — we have returned to the states, and my twenties are behind me — and I am going to rummage around in my dusty geriatric brain until I find something I want to say about these events. Okay then! My name is Katie and I live in America again and I am thirty!
I Live In America Again
Just kidding, I have basically nothing of note to say about this end of things. We were away for a while, and it was nice, and now we’re back, and that is nice, too. The other day Ryan and I were listening to the Diane Rehm show — tuned to NPR in our leased Honda Fit, on our way to Panera, our transition back to flabby middle class American life finally complete — and this lady was on, talking about her book on happiness. I enjoyed listening to her, especially after discovering she was an actual psychologist who researches happiness and not a blogger with a danged book deal. She talked about hedonic adaptation, about how, because of our ability to rapidly adjust to any new circumstance, the things we think will make us insanely happy never actually do so for very long.
Can I just say, that shit is word. A couple weeks ago my parents and I went out antiquing in Bumfuck, Virginia. The sky was blue and the diner breakfast was legit and the antique malls were eminently rummage-able. Thinking about having a day like that — out with family in Real America, trying on stupid vintage hats, eating some motherfucking buttermilk biscuits — would have been almost literally painful a year ago, like where you double over and put your hands to your face and go “uuuuuurrrrrgggggghhh god America” while Mongolia laughs, blows its wintry air all over you, and stuffs dried milk curds into your mouth.
However: That day, while it was pleasant and filled me with a moderate amount of happiness, did not make me fall to the ground in spasms of euphoria, which is how I would have expected to feel. I don’t know. As it turns out two and a half years is really not a very long time to get so worked up about these things, especially when you’ve had a steady internet connection for almost that whole period. So, hello again, America. I see everything is more or less how we left it.
That being said, it sure is nice to see people again, and it is especially nice to return to DC (or the DC area, because we live with my parents out in the suburbs and I must continue to announce that to the world as often as possible), where we know people, lots of people, lots of lovely people who are nice to us and hang out with us and even give us paid work. I spent a couple of hours the other day reading my own blog archives from February 2007 onward — February 2007 being when we were in the exact same position we are in now, i.e., home after a stint abroad, living with my parents, trying to secure employment — and feeling so sorry for those poor assholes. In a new city, trying to make friends, anxious about the future, looking for jobs exclusively on Craigslist for christ’s sweet sake.
I Am Thirty
That single dead leaf up there — trembling, ready to be swept away by the bitter winds of winter — is meant to symbolize my lost youth.
So it seems like the whole world, or at least my dingy little corner of the internet anyway, is all of the sudden just full of ruminations on overprivileged twentysomethings, right when I have crossed the threshold into overprivileged thirtysomthinghood. This New Yorker book review is a good overview, although it leaves out Elizabeth Wurtzel’s completely horrifying account of her total shambly horrorshow of an imitation of a life worth living, oh my god. It got a reaction out of me because a) obviously it is very well written and b) when I was a teenager I used to think that I might become a much less successful version of her, somebody who spends decades refusing to make any binding life decisions, somebody who is a writer, or in the case of alternate-universe me a “writer,” somebody who grows progressively more alone and more crazy and more broke. What’s most frightening is that I also used to think this was a kind of life I should have, like if only I had the courage of my convictions I would one day move to a major metropolitan area (preferably overseas) and live by myself and have no support network and be clinically depressed all the time. Like a bohemian version of Cathy? Without Irving, but with the sweatsuit.
I used to feel this way because when I imagined adult life, every other possibility — marriage, grad school, home ownership, children, a non-glamorous office job, saving for retirement, commuting in rush hour — seemed even more scary than Bohemian Depressed Cathy. Clearly Wurtzel feels this way, too:
And a lot feels potentially imprisoning to me: To get through every day, through a job of staring at pencil marks in spreadsheets through glassy eyes, through humoring a husband who has not sold a screenplay in six years and is writing a new one still, through telling everybody your three basic children are talented and gifted—I know that people who do these things are happy because happiness is the untruths we tell each other and ourselves or it would be unbearable. But I would rather not. I would rather be sad, and sometimes lonely, but at least not suffering the silly.
Eighteen-year-old me, with all her knowledge of herself and the world, would have agreed. But thirty-year-old me is all, imprison yourself, Wurtzel! THE CAGE WILL SET YOU FREE!
What in god’s name is my point, here.
Basically, I am at peace with the Prison of Life now in a way that I was not in my mid-20s, when I was writing stuff like this. There are many potential reasons for this: The universe has been nice to us and as a result I am not worried about our future; I have a set of somewhat useful skills and experiences now that I didn’t when I was 25; we just finished doing A Big Thing that was Important To Us To Have Done, and while it was sometimes difficult and painful I am grateful it happened, so grateful that sometimes the feeling of gratitude crosses into a feeling of deep relief.
But it’s also possible that I feel better about things just because I’m older now.
Or then again, could it be because of my new frantic diet and exercise routine? Because oh my god can I just tell you that I’ve been counting calories the last couple of weeks and it’s –
So now I will wrap this up with some Resolutions For My 30th Year even though it’s 16% over already:
1. Work on my nail art game:
2. Try not to bore people too much with my calorie counting
3. Start a gratitude journal? I don’t know. Stop laughing at me. This seems like a reasonable idea thanks to the Happiness Studies Internet Hole I fell down after listening to that lady talk about her book (of course that internet hole is not bottomless; it ends with this article from The Atlantic which calls for a whole other boring blog post). But don’t worry, if I actually start gratitude journaling I won’t be doing it here. I’ll be doing it all over Facebook. Haha just kidding, of course I’ll be doing it in some kind of private notebook, and probably not anywhere near daily, and probably after I’m dead and my family/the authorities are going through my things they will discover in my stack of yellowed steno pads that I just wrote “I AM SO GRATEFUL FOR THESE HIGH-RISE WORKOUT PANTS” over and over.
4. Find some kind of creative endeavor to take the place of last year’s photo-taking. I know how morally indefensible it is for me to link here to yet another site having to do with myself, but I mean, I did manage to do a full 365 project in 2012 (almost) and if you are so inclined you may see the fruits of my labor here. I am very glad I did this. It was a photogenic year.
Also, here is a gif:
I hope you are well. Good night.
* This post took forever to finish (probably because I have un-learned how to find things to write about in daily American life — it’s so much easier when you’re in a foreign country and every day brings countless, blog-ready opportunities for you to explore your own buffoonery). It took so long to finish that the following things have changed since I began: Ryan got into grad school, I got a full time job, and I stopped counting calories. So that’s a relief.
Our top story tonight: Ryan and Katie prepare to return to the United States of America after screwing around overseas for two and a half years!
But first, one last half-assed travel post.
Strangely enough, I think we enjoyed our time in the Chinatowns of Bangkok, Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur more than our time in China, itself. With all the alleyways, junk shops, Buddhist supply stores and street food, there was just more olde-timey flavor in these neighborhoods than in most of Beijing, Shanghai or Hangzhou (admitting this gives me a squirmy, first-world-problems feeling: Am I saying I begrudge China’s middle class its apartment complexes and shopping malls? Would I rather these places stop developing, so that I can experience more “local flavor” when I travel? I guess not; it’s just that Chinese suburbia is not my ideal vacation destination). At one point, Ryan and I were sitting in a taxi in Bangkok’s Chinatown, going down one of the more colorful streets with all its red-gold signs and dragons and sharks-fin restaurants and charismatic oldsters and whatnot. As we looked out the windows a Motown song came on the radio, and suddenly, strangely, the feeling of traveling back in time was complete.
The other reason I have a soft spot for these expat neighborhoods is that they have yielded up some of the choicest souvenirs of the trip. Behold, the jewel in my Crown of Crap:
Lord, yes. I love this big creepy head more than I love most people. We had to buy another bag just to tote it around but I don’t care. I don’t care.
The day I found it, I brought it back to the room and we took turns putting it on and capering around ghoulishly; both times, the person watching would laugh nervously and say, “That’s weird. That’s enough. Take…take it off please.” Then the person wearing it would say “What?” and look in the mirror and whisper in horror, “Oh my god.”
Such is the power of The Head! Oh man, I can’t wait to have this weird, nightmarish thing sitting around our home for the rest of our lives.
Also: I show you this picture to give you an idea of just how gross some of the hotels have been on this trip. Land of clean sheets and mold-free bathrooms, here we come!
Foody food food
Let’s cut the crap. We came to Malaysia for one thing, and one thing only. I believe you know what this one thing is.
So you can imagine what a bummer it was when we found Malaysian street food — fabled, renowned Malaysian street food, haunter of our dreams, activator of our drool glands lo these many months — to be kind of disappointing. This was mostly my fault. I had built it up too much ahead of time. “It’s supposed to be amazing,” I would blabber to anybody who would listen. “Like the best things about Thai food and Indian food and Chinese food, all put together to create an explosion of new flavors unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before!”
As it turns out, that is not what Malaysian street food is like, and I’m not sure where I got that idea from, anyway. You can get Chinese food here, and you can get Indian food, and you can get Malay food, but it’s all pretty mellow. The plate of mee goreng up there is a good example: Stir fried and cheap, it’s got a little bit of spice it’s but basically a close cousin to tsuivan, another bland noodle dish (sorry, Mongolia). I mean, look at it. It’s garnished with lettuce. Lettuce!
But once we got over our outlandish expectations, we started to enjoy the food here just fine. Above, we have a delightful bowl of beef ball soup, which had a surprisingly spaghetti-like flavor profile. Below is the only photo I managed to take of the many Indian meals we had, because I would always scarf things down immediately after they were served:
And last but not least, my two favorites: Chicken rice and won ton mee.
I could eat these things every day until the end of time. I also came up with a jingle for chicken rice, using nice and price, but my pride prevents me from sharing it with you here.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that we have been ready for this trip to be over for, oh, some time now. We slipped out of vacation mode a few weeks ago; instead, we’ve been in unemployment mode. In unemployment mode, we don’t spend a whole lot of time sightseeing or trekking or trying to experience the culture or writing down observations for posterity (obviously! HA). Instead, we stay in our air-conditioned rooms, finalizing grad school applications, taking the first, agonizing steps towards finding jobs, researching cell phone plans. Every once in a while, in a spasm of guilt and a vague sense of obligation, we rouse ourselves! And we go see a thing! But mostly we don’t do this.
So, basically, if anybody ever asks me how Malaysia was I will only be able to shrug. Oh, like, that place that was outside our door whenever we got hungry? Pretty good! It was pretty good, I think?
It has been pretty good, though, and I’m glad we came. I’m glad we came to Malaysia. I’m glad we took this trip, that we took this time for ourselves. I’m glad we decided, three years ago, to go away for a while, and I’m glad we went away to Mongolia. Sometimes it’s felt like forever and sometimes it’s felt like just a moment, but either way all this time has been a gift, and I am grateful that we had it.
But in a few hours we’ll get on a plane, and it will bring us home. So can we hang out soon? It’s been a while, and we’ve missed you.
Sorry about the title, George Orwell. I (and every other doofus with a blog who’s traveled to Myanmar) just couldn’t help myself.
Although it probably seems like I am never going to stop subjecting you to posts about our endless vacation, the end is, in fact, kind of nigh. This trip had its three-month birthday a few days ago, which means we have only a few more weeks till we finally return to the states. The USA, the Mother Land, O land of family and friends and deep dark delicious beer! But alas, it is also the land of unemployment for the both of us, and one last semester of grad school for me. The clearest sign that the party is over is the fact that I’ve started making Real World to-do lists again. Fortunately for all of us, “finish blogging about Myanmar” comes before “find in-network dentist in Cleveland,” “make LinkedIn account” and “please start drafting Peace Corps paper,” so, let’s do this thing.
How about reverse chronological order?
Temples! Temples, and how. This was our last stop in Myanmar and the one I had been most excited about, back when we were planning this trip. Like Angkor Wat, Bagan is an endless sea of priceless, centuries-old ruins that you are, for some reason, permitted to climb all over like a monkey.
We stayed for about a week, since the area is huge, dusty and hot, and we wanted to give ourselves enough time to explore while still sticking to our strict afternoon regimen of eating, napping, and watching Game of Thrones.
In the dawn and twilight hours, Bagan is pretty magical. You hop on your bike and point yourself toward the central plain and soon it’s just you and the cowherds. You can follow whatever dirt road you like; at the end there’s a fairytale temple, and if you’re lucky it’s all yours.
But if you’re unlucky, one of the popular temples is at the end of that dirt road, with busloads of package tour retirees milling around, and aisles of vendors yelling “COLD WATER MADAME” and “PAINTINGS MADAME HAVE A LOOK IT IS FREE TO HAVE A LOOK.” When we managed to steer clear of these places, Bagan was lovely, like a waking dream; when we found ourselves being followed around by teenage lacquerware vendors who would coo “your earrings are lovely madame, where you from, hey where you going,” Bagan was the worst, most obnoxious place on earth.
A couple weeks ago I was talking with an American expat in Mandalay about her time living in Bali. I asked what it was like, what with all the tourism, and the Australians, and such. The way she described it made it sound like something out of Dante’s Inferno to me, but it seemed like she took the vendors and hawkers and beggars in stride. They’re just trying to hustle, just trying to make a buck, she said, and how can I begrudge them that?
That conversation clarified something for me. Because obviously I agree: When people get all up in my face with their trinkets, I’m not annoyed at them. How can I be annoyed at them? Okay obviously I am annoyed at them, it is very easy to be annoyed at them. But of course I understand why they’re there, and that I should be patient and kind, and that I should remember how obscenely wealthy I am compared to them, and etc.
On our first big trip through southeast Asia, we hit a lot of the must-see places in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and so we spent a not-inconsiderable percentage of our time wading through crowds of vendors, or beggars, or both. As a result, I think I just accepted that into every backpacking trip, a goodly amount of “hello you beautiful you have a look” must fall.
On this trip, though, we’ve been to the following places: China, where domestic tourists are king and very few people could give two fucks about a couple of Americans; Laos, where people are so laid back that you can walk through an entire market of souvenirs without having anybody say anything to you; and Bangkok, where we have tried to steer clear of the backpackers’ ghetto this time around and have discovered a whole new city, one that is deliciously indifferent to our presence. And then Myanmar! Myanmar, with the most amazing people of all, people who are friendly and kind because that is just how they do, people who are pleasantly amused by your presence, people who will smile and wave their babies’ hands at you as you walk down the street, just for fun.
So what I realize now is that, in those moments in Bagan when I was surrounded by people trying, loudly, to sell me things, I was mostly just annoyed with myself. For knowing how stressful I find those situations to be, and for somehow failing to avoid them, even though I am now thoroughly aware of how easy they are to avoid. Oh look, I thought, I’ve somehow found the one place in Myanmar that is as aggravating as Khao San Road. Hooray.
In conclusion, Bagan was pretty cool at times, but not my favorite place. We did, however, have the pleasure of our travel buddy Pecaut, who shared our lust for Game of Thrones (but not, strangely, our lust for slothlike lounging for 80% of the day), and who took this ridiculous, yet sublime, photo of us:
Then there was that one outing when the two of us got caught out in the middle of nowhere AFTER THE SUN WENT DOWN and all I can say is: Thank you for having that compass and that flashlight, friend.
Now let us never speak of it again.
Moving right along to:
Mandalay was fun! For several reasons.
1. There were more buds to pal around with: Sam and Katie, a swell couple who Pecaut met on the plane (hi guys!) and Trinh, the motorbike-ridin’ RPCV below, who lives in Mandalay now and squired us about his fair city:
Thanks for the beers, buddy. Please enjoy your gifs.
2. This is the city where Ryan and I finally discovered teahouses. I don’t know what took us so long; in Yangon we ate mostly on the street or in proper restaurants, and somehow we failed to notice the large, airy teahouses, where men sit and drink chai-like tea and watch soap operas with their manfriends all day long.
In Mandalay we finally got with the program. Teahouses are awesome because of the aforementioned prepubescent boys who work there, who are all, as far as I can tell anyway, the most charming and adorable 12-year-olds on the face of the earth.
When we asked Trinh whether any of these kids ever go to school, though, he said a lot of them are from the countryside, and they get sent to work at these places because they will be fed and clothed and housed and paid at least a little, which is more than their families can do for them back home. This is obviously sad, and made me feel pretty bad for taking so much delight in these boys. At least they get to practice doing math when they make change? Oh god I’m sorry I’ll stop.
Teahouses are also awesome for the food. We had heard some gnarly things about the food before we came to Myanmar, and indeed, the one traditional Myanmar meal we had was not really to our liking. Lots of oil in the curry, lots of unadulterated shrimp paste in the salads. Meh.
Teahouse food, though! Noodle soup, peanutty rice salad, samosas, flatbread with beans — it posed no challenges to the palate, and was so cheap as to be basically free.
And finally, teahouses are awesome because the whole point is to sit there forever with your tea, and some of these places even have free wifi. Ryan and I are basically always on the lookout for two things when we’re traveling: Cheap delicious eateries that are packed with locals, and places where we can sit and use the internet and not feel bad for taking up space while we do so. Usually these places are different; usually the latter is a bar or coffeehouse in the backpacker district, and the former is…not. But with Mandalay teahouses, everything we wanted was in the same place! It was kind of magical, to eat my ten-cent samosa and taptaptap away on our netbook, while the Gentlemen Who Lunch at the next table over watched the soccer game on TV, and the teenager at the next table after that stared into his smartphone and sipped his tea. Knowing that we could sit there all day long and just keep ordering tea from those cute boys and nobody would give a shit. Heaven!
I mean the wifi didn’t always work very well, but still. I thought the whole thing was swell.
3. And finally, Mandalay was fun because of –surprise! — the people. Are you tired of me talking about how much I loved the people in Myanmar? If I love them so much why don’t I just marry them, you say? Well too bad for you because I’m not even close to being done yet bwa hahaha hey wait where are you going?
We did go on a one-day whirlwind tour of the big tourist spots around the city and that was a lot like the worst parts of Bagan, with the busloads of old white people and the crazed vendors and all. But whatever, we got what we deserved, and it was a nice day other than that. Ruins and house carts and weavers, oh my!
But for the rest of our time in Mandalay, we just wandered around, drinking tea, smiling and waving and saying hello to people. My favorite part was when Ryan and I took a pedicab across the city; I sat in the rear-facing seat with my camera, and flirted with basically everybody who went by.
Oh hi, are you still there? Sorry this post is such a beast. Let’s finish this thing.
So, Hsipaw! Sweet, sweet Hsipaw. We stayed a week; I could’ve done another. The Lonely Planet says that when you visit Myanmar, you should make sure to go at least one place off the beaten path, one place that is not the “Big Four” (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake). This is excellent advice, and if I did it again I would avoid the Big Four altogether. It’s just that Hsipaw (and, I suspect, a lot of other little towns like it) was the best of all possible worlds: A quiet, relaxing place, almost completely free of other tourists, populated by the friendliest people on earth.
I mean, after I took these ladies’ photos, they thanked me. They thanked me! What kind of bizarro world is this!
Here’s another example: One morning I took my crappy little Chinese daypack to the market, to get a couple holes patched. First, I found a guy with a sewing machine at the entrance. He pointed me down the street a little ways, and I walked up to a couple women with another sewing machine. Then the original guy saw me and called to the ladies (I’m guessing here), “Hey, the foreigner needs Bob! Bob the Backpack-Patcher!”
And they were like “Bob’s right over there, see?” and I was like “Buh?” and started bumbling across the street towards an empty storefront, and by this time basically the entire market was yelling out “BOB! HEY BOB COME HELP THIS FOREIGNER!” Then Bob emerged, and I turned and smiled and waved at everybody to say thanks, and some people applauded. Non-ironically. (!!!)
After I got the backpack fixed, Ryan and I set off on another two-day trek. There’s this entertaining thing that men do in Myanmar if they work with foreigners in any way: They give themselves an English name that reflects what it is they do for a living. So, in Hsipaw, the guy who sold books was Mr. Book, the guy who ran the Chinese restaurant was Mr. Food, and the guy who sold fruit shakes was Mr. Shake. We were kind of confused when our guide introduced himself as Mr. Bean:
Until he explained that his day job is at the market, where he sells — can you guess? — beans.
Mr. Bean was by far the most ridiculous character we’ve met on this trip. He laughed like Eddie Murphy. He would offer us betel nut, asking, “You want some candy? Hoo hoo hoo!” He often remarked that if his wife ever left him, he would “surely die.” He asked us if we knew the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and then started singing it as loud as he could. When a competitor’s tour group would pass us on the trail, he would turn to us and say, “They are evil! Hoo hoo hoo!”
He was a weird old fart for sure, but a loveable one.
This was our final trek of the trip, and I think we saved the best for last. Mr. Bean was consistently entertaining; the trail was dry, free of leeches, and not too steep; the villages we passed through were jam-packed with adorable kids.
We stayed in a tea-farming Palaung village, high in the hills. We got there in mid-afternoon so we had time to wander around, watching the women come in from the fields with their baskets heaped with leaves.
We also had time to locate a shop with beer, so after dinner we had a wee little party with Mr. Bean and our host, who knows how to pose for a picture like nobody’s business:
When we returned to Hsipaw the next day, I got a lot of pleasure out of heaping all of our trekking gear in a corner of our room and bidding it farewell. Ryan’s sneakers, my boots, my poncho, my shorts I bought in Laos that were two sizes too big, my crappy backpack that had just been patched up: Think of all the space that opened up in our bags! Think of all the souvenirs we can buy, to fill that space!
Our last couple days in Hsipaw were spent wandering to and fro. I went a little crazy and bought a few hats at the market, possibly as a result of the I-have-new-space-in-my-bag euphoria, which doesn’t make any sense because the hats are huge and made of brittle, inflexible bamboo and won’t fit in any bag:
Ryan has suggested that I wear all three of them stacked on my head on the flight home. Perhaps.
We also accepted Mr. Bean’s invitation to come visit him at the market, to meet his daughter and his wife, and to try his bean salad.
Man, this stuff was good. Pickled tea leaves, tomatoes, garlic, chili, sesame seeds, and the bean mixture that they sell at their stall. I have no idea how the beans were prepared. They had a hard crunch to them, like they hadn’t been soaked and cooked, but just deep-fried. I’m not sure if I can re-create this back in the states, but I sure am going to try.
Mr. and Ms. Bean sat and chatted with us, telling us about the postcards and photos and other mementos from tourists that were stuck to a nearby cabinet. When we asked if we could pay them for the salad, they laughed and then made us another portion, to go, that we could take with us on our bus to Mandalay the next day. Mr. Bean said that the water of the nearby river was magic, and that anybody who drinks it is destined to return to Hsipaw. Then he pointed to our tea cups and said we’d just had some of that water, so we would be seeing each other again. “Remember to tell your friends to come see Mr. Bean!” he said as we left. “If they don’t, they will surely regret!”
Well, friend, that brings us to the end of our adventures in Myanmar. If you have made it this far, I can only assume that you are a) a real masochist, b) a real pal, and/or c) at least somewhat interested in visiting Myanmar. If c) is the case, then I will end by saying that you should definitely go to Myanmar, but you should probably not wait too long to do it.
Word on the street is that independent tourism there is about to explode, and I believe it. It wasn’t even the high season yet when we were there, and already a lot of the guesthouses were getting booked up. I can only assume that the fantastical, Disney-World-like levels of friendliness we experienced were due to two things: The fact that most people have not yet had a whole lot of contact with foreigners, and the fact that there is just something about the national character of Myanmar that makes its citizens extremely welcoming. I hope it is mostly the latter, but really, it’s got to be at least a little of the former, and while I don’t want to be an ass and say that more tourists will “ruin” the country, I will be a realist and say that more tourists will change the experience for the tourists who come after them.
Basically, as of right now and for perhaps not too much longer, Myanmar is a treat to visit, mostly because of its people. They make you forget what an overprivileged, voyeuristic, fat piece of backpacking shit you are. Or actually, never mind, you can never really leave that behind; it’s more that the people in Myanmar see you for what you are, and they like you anyway, and they think you’re interesting, and they want to say hello. That is a special thing, I think. That is rare.
But anyway, now we’re back in Bangkok, enjoying the air conditioning, the iced lattes, and the anonymity. We’re planning ahead for Malaysia, our last stop; we’re thinking about home, which seems closer than ever.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go research some dentists.