Back in London: You can’t go home again (phew!!)

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After just over 7 months in Mae Sot I’m back living in London.

It’s a funny feeling – not the affluenza-induced despair I was expecting (Westfield-Bondi Junction popped that cherry) but a dreamy inversion, like I’m traveling through my adopted hometown.

On this reverse travel high, familiar things take on an unfamiliar quality – bricks, pavements, Airwaves gum, Pret-A-Manger, brown leather jackets, shuddering traintracks. The glowing aisles of Sainsbury’s. The pulsing bells of Southwark Cathedral. The tired, ironic voice-overs of beleaguered British tube drivers telling their passengers over and over to “mind the closing doors”.

It’s still the same old London but everything’s all buffed up and dewy, like a freshly washed car. I’m being mindful without even trying. Maybe this is the silver lining to that melancholic phrase, “You can’t go home again”.

Bricks… bricks!!

What does it mean to travel? Why does everyone like it so much? I think it’s to do with this filter-bending effect it induces, a sensory trick akin to popping a pair of glasses back on after wiping off the dirt streaks. It reminds me of the way I felt bike-riding around Mae Sot. It’s what makes travel so drug-like, the flipside being that coming home carries the risk of a comedown. Even after a brief weekend away, the returned traveler can feel deflated, morose, hungover; after a relatively long time they may fall prey to ‘reverse culture shock’, where the dip is more pronounced, and the sudden transition back to R.L. causes them to plummet to a miserable, alienated “re-entry” funk at the bottom of a U-shape curve.

I’ve often been left frustrated and dissatisfied by short trips over international borders, many of which I’d throw in the Tourism (not Travel) basket. I never felt like they had a much of an effect, and if they did it was almost imperceptible or wore off immediately. Living somewhere else rather than just passing through means the effects of travel are more likely to stick, for better or worse. In the end this is what makes the whole expensive, tiring, disaster-prone enterprise worthwhile.

Maybe the way you feel coming home is a sort of litmus test for how meaningful/life-changing a trip really was, if that was the intention?

For the moment the effects of this one seem to be lasting, like they did, mostly, while I was away. This is helped by my current situation. A series of bureaucratic obstacles have meant I haven’t been able to start back at hospital yet so instead of going to work I’ve been spending mornings, afternoons and early evenings wandering around Zone 1 like a badly dressed dandy thinking through abstract philosophical questions while listening to songs on my iPhone. The other day I went for a walk along Southbank beside the stale, lapping olive-grey Thames water. Watching heavy clouds lit up an eerie periwinkle blue trip over the surface, moment by moment, I thought of how neurons are like filter paper and how it’s like the ISO has gone up on mine so that now I can absorb a lot more in conditions of low lighting – literally. A handy ability to have in the UK!

Low-lying London clouds

Low-lying clouds

I want this grainy ISO-400 clean-clothes-out-of-the-dryer feeling to last, and I hope the change in perspective it brings proves more durable than a disposable contact lens from Specsavers. I really hope it doesn’t evaporate as soon as I step through the automated doors into A+E next week (gulp). I don’t want to revert back to my pre-departure baseline. Somehow, I want to stave off hedonic adaptation[1], however inevitable it might be.

Watch this space.


[1] From Wikipedia: the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

Quote of the month (and before-bed reminder)

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph. 19th century American essayist, leader of the Transcendentalist movement, a prescient intellect. I wonder what he would be like as a psychotherapist.

‘Inside Burma’ – on the night bus

726pm. I’m inspecting a wilted chocolate doughnut and unidentified bun squished into a small cardboard box with flowy Burmese writing on it. KG is not interested. She’s sitting in the puffed-up recliner next to me, huddled in a fluorescent apricot CottonOn hoodie that looks a lot brighter than she does, staring up at the TV screen, which, incidentally, is playing the same music video of an albino popstar that’s always on in Lucky’s teahouse in Mae Sot – weird.

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This is the second night bus we’ve caught on this trip and I’m the one who made us get it, instead of a significantly more expensive flight, despite KG’s besieged intestinal tract not being 100% recovered. Although it smells like garlic cloves in here and the air-conditioning has that Legionella-feel to it, it’s sort of warm and cozy (not literally – technically it’s v. v. cold).

We waited around for several hour in this strange, chaotic makeshift terminal on the side of the road, straddling our backpacks expectantly. The driver and most of the other staff of the Shwe Mandalar bus company are loud middle-aged men with their bellies stuffed tightly into dark green longyis. They herded us on and chuckled explosively when I attempted (in Burmese then in English) to check this was the 730pm bus to Yangon. HAHAHA??!!

We haven’t started moving yet. An eager younger man in a pressed white shirt just brought round a tray of Sunkist cans. He looked confused when we declined.

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On top of the snack box and the soft pink blanket with bunnies on it, it looks like we get a complementary toothbrush- yay!!

 

 

 

I am feeling overwhelmed with guilty excitement. Guilty because I’m a lot more excited, it would seem, than my travel counterpart. The garlic-clove smell isn’t sitting well. She is looking unimpressed and a bit pale…

127am. We’ve pulled into a vast and bustling highway market with a series of all-night cafeterias. All the spare change and bright, jangling lights make it feel a bit like a casino. And at the same time, it feels vaguely… communist? Maybe part of the dictatorship hangover?

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KG’s perked up after adjusting to the bus smell and we’ve been ranting at each other about relationships, being 30, jobs, biological injustice, men – specifically Australian men – and what’s wrong with them. Neither of us has needed the toilet up till now, which is lucky because there isn’t one on board. My night bus guilt is starting to fade.

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In the stores they’re selling avocados and oranges, packets of banana chips, an infinite range of fried snacks, jellies and plastic jars filled with things that look like dried black fungus.

 

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Some of the labels have Snow White on them.

 

 

 

I just bought a big glutinous grey rice-based blob of something wrapped in plastic but threw it in the bin after a couple of thought-provoking chews. I also bought a bottle of white ‘grape wine’. KG rolled her eyes at this. It seems I’m impulse spending. And I think I just saw a monk instagram something. Brain over-stimulated. Starting to get very tired.

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“Want to see the long-necks?” On the tourist trail Part 2

KG has no appetite but is feeling a bit better so this afternoon we ventured down to the jetty with a stray backpacker and booked a half-day tour of Inle Lake. We were plonked down in a long-tail boat with a small but vocal motor, which spluttered single-file down a streaming waterway lined with sugar canes, green reeds and wilting banana palms.

After 30 minutes the waterway widened out into the main body of the lake, a blue surface dotted with stick-figures of the Intha leg-rowing fishermen balanced upright on the backs of their boats man-handling those large webbed baskets. Tired, reluctant mountains sat in the background like low-lying blocks of muddy, uncut sapphire. Other boats and bright clumps of weed passed by. The thin air, strong light and dusky, plethoric faces reminded me of Lake Titicaca.

Like a scene from 'Jaws'. But who's the shark?

Like a scene from ‘Jaws’. But who’s the shark?

First stop was a floating market. Inle Lake is typically listed as one of Burma’s ‘Top 5’ attractions and Wikitravel had warned us that the standard itinerary involves being taken to a relentless series of workshops and shops-on-stilts selling products like woven fabrics, silverware, tobacco and handmade cheroots, all set up exclusively for tourists. Time Travel Turtle advised (on his blog), ‘Just be prepared to feel like you’re on a Disneyland ride, gliding along with a camera and no control.’

Our boat driver, like the hawkers in town, kept reminding us we could go and “see the long-necks” if we wanted. It’s a jarring concept. Inside some of the dimly lit souvenir shops, a handful of Padaung women are sitting around waiting to be… viewed? Or photographed, or to sell something? I’m still not really sure. Aside from intuitive shame, I was vaguely aware of some of the ethical quandaries involved in this sort of spectacle (to see or not to see, etc.). There are active (annoying) debates on TripAdvisor about whether it’s ok to take photos or not. There’s also the question of whether it’s ‘real’.

The Padaung[1], from the Kayan Kahwi ethnic group of Eastern Burma, are widely known around the world for their tradition of women (sometimes called “giraffe women”, hmn) wearing heavy brass coils around their neck, typically from around the age of 5. As they grow, more rings get added year by year. This compresses the collarbone and ribcage, eventually leading to the appearance of an elongated neck. Someone told us they’re not from Inle Lake but are brought in from other areas of Shan State by business owners as bait for curious, cashed-up tourists. It’s even been alleged that the rings are fake – that it’s now only the elderly members of the tribe who practice the custom[2] and the younger girls take them off at the end of a shift before heading home.

I wonder what it’s like to effectively sell a part of your identity (your ‘self’) and try to make an income from your family traditions, your literal image, your depressed clavicles? What’s it like to be an object of “the tourist gaze” ? Real or not, the blatant commodification of ethnic identity raises strange and disquieting questions. Are the Padaung women and girls wearing the rings just to cater to the voyeuristic demands of affluent tourists on an ironic quest for spoon-fed authenticity? And what would they be doing otherwise, besides weaving?

I wandered in, past a middle-aged woman and two teenagers serving weak green tea at the entrance. They were all wearing the rings. A brief look – their necks appeared to be longer. Feeling self-conscious (the height of narcissism?), I went over to a collection of carved wooden statues, jewelry and discardable trinkets spread out on some large tables, picked up a jade bracelet, a flimsy pair of silver earrings, then put them down again. My hand gravitated towards my wallet like an trigger finger but I couldn’t concentrate because of all the shop assistants hovering around with their soft, imploring smiles. When I asked how much something was in Burmese, one raised her voice and started calling me ‘sister’ (as in ‘sister, buy this one!’). It was awkward and a bit depressing.

Outside I walked into a flashbulb of sunshine. An elderly woman with no teeth sidled up to our boat and tried to sell me a soggy bunch of reeds for 100 kyats, with eventual success.

I’ve come to realize that the touristic encounter is almost always dissatisfying, for the tourist at least. And the Padaung women aside (uh oh more narcissism..), what about my identity, my mode of being-in-the-world?? I don’t want it to be reduced down to ritual acts of consumption. It feels somehow demeaning to both parties. Even though I don’t mind watching money flow heavily across 1st/3rd world membranes, it’s no fun to be treated like a walking – or floating – ATM.

In the end we convinced our reluctant driver to bypass the other floating shops and take us to a floating village instead.[3] I spose the idea was to see local residents going about their everyday lives – hanging out the washing, tending to their water-gardens, taking a bath under the house, transporting vegetables to and from the markets. 

Jaws 2? This time we are the annoying shark.

Jaws 2. This time we are definitely the shark.

We were steered passively past rows of stilted houses with satellite dishes and washing lines with T-shirts and strips of bamboo drying in the sun. We passed through a dense network at the edge of some algae blooms and “floating gardens” where Intha farmers plant crops like tomatoes on beds of water hyacinth, marsh vegetation and soil anchored down by bamboo rods. We learnt there are lots of nutrients in the lake-water, which is known for its ecological diversity. Like a scene from a B-grade movie called “What Tourists Want”, we were on a 3-hour quest for a glimpse of ‘the authentic’, propelled by an intrusive and creepy inclination ‘to experience…life through the perspective of an “Other”’. And one noisy boat-motor.

This brief view of aquaculture and what it’s like to live on stilts/not be able to step out your front door was interesting, but I still felt like a gawker in a human zoo – a pale, sedentary, self-loathing gawker hiding their post-modern tourist gaze uncomfortably behind a pair of UV-protective sunglasses[4], my filter of privilege, my 1st world neoliberal capitalist lens.

Inle Lake is a tourist trap but it’s not the rule. For the moment, tourists can still pretty much get what they (we, sigh!!) want in Burma/Myanmar because the encounters are still novel and, unlike the rest of South East Asia, I think for the most part the buzz is felt on both sides. This makes it feel more equal, more genuine, more ‘real’ – like human beings from different cultures in a part-meaningful, part-economic exchange with one another. A two-way street, not a cheap transaction.

Not like handing over thousands of mould-ridden kyats for a jade bracelet that I’m still wondering whether I should have bought.


[1] The question of what name to use is a loaded one. Identity labels are rarely straightforward in Burma/Myanmar, where even the name of the country is a raw bone of contention.

[2] Reasons proposed for why the rings are worn have included: to protect from tiger bites, to discourage slave-traders, to enhance femininity and attractiveness to Padaung men (hmnph). These days it’s mostly thought to be worn as a marker of cultural identity.

[3] It’s cheap to hire a boat partly because the drivers earn even more from commissions at the shops they take you to. Now I feel guilty for diverting ours to the village. Lose-lose aaargh!!

[4] A good idea given the relatively high altitude and my/KG’s anxieties about fine lines.

Travel bug

Last night, after a wonderful dinner of liquid gold gloopy tofu, tomato salad and Shan guacamole (Burmese food is maybe the best in the world!!) my hardened journo travel buddy developed a raging gastroenteritis, starting with a small, innocuous vomit on the side of the road.

Back at the guesthouse, things escalated at an alarming rate. We were up the whole night, KG alternating between very loud, violent retching spells and desperate toilet runs, letting out screams of “Fuck you, parasite!!!” and quiet sobs, “Pleease parasite, please leave me alone, pleeeaaase…” – me suppressing a recurring impulse to point out it was likely bacterial and that it’s not a good idea to brush your teeth with tap water in South Asia, if you have a choice. At 2am with her sitting up in bed hugging the vomit bin it didn’t seem a good time for a lecture. 

After several hours of deranged parasite talk I started to get worried. Judging by the bathroom noises she was losing a lot of fluid, but she couldn’t keep down any water and her pulse was sitting at 100 beats per minute. In one very dark moment she expelled the only anti-emetic pill I had brought (dammit!), which we had strategically administered in between stopwatch-timed vomits. At that point I thought we might have to venture out in the dark to try and find some sort of healthcare facility with an IV drip, which didn’t seem like a fun prospect in the middle of the pitch-black night in Nyaungshwe.

At around 4am the retching subsided and her pulse went down and by 5am we were asleep. It’s now nearly sunset, and the poor thing has been in bed all day. It will probably be another couple of days before she recovers her baseline vivicious strength.

One of the perils of trying to squeeze a trip to a place like Burma in 10 days is that if you get taken down by a pathogen of whatever nature, it puts a real dent in your travel plans. A boat trip down Inle Lake is off the cards for the time being.

‘Inside Burma’ – first impressions

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We landed in Shan State before dusk and caught at taxi down to Inle Lake with a strange oversized Italian man in his late forties. We had acquired him, somehow, in the Heho domestic airport terminal, and he sat in the front seat emitting a strong twin scent of nicotine and mental fragility.

Gazing out the window I was struck by the ochre and maple-streaked fields passing by, the lime green fronds scattered on the messy fringes, the random blooms of electrified blood-red on top of dried branches with warm light filtering through like sparkling beer  – by a sense of being somewhere very different, like watching a foreign film on a crackling projector. As a backdrop, the sun was quietly dropping behind an inky line of mountains. The faint remnants of cloud looked like stickers on a blue board, and the atmosphere was lit up a pale, diffuse gold-green which was reflected in cold triangles of water embedded in the rambling landscape like a fine, shiny lacquer.

I have lacquer on my mind after two days spent in Bagan, a string of 3 small towns in central Myanmar – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung Oo ­– known as a ‘mini Angkor Wat’ for its scattered concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas, wats and pagodas (still not sure what’s what), many of which date back to the 11th and 12th century.

Temples (Old Bagan)

Temples (Old Bagan)

It also has a lot of lacquerware. In Old Bagan, a temple hotspo), women sell lacquer-covered bamboo cardholders, pots and jewelry boxes as souvenirs outside the pagoda entrances and family-owned lacquerware businesses pop up on the roadside almost as much as the rust-coloured ruins.

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Lacquer pots on the roadside

I’m in Burma/Myanmar with a journalist friend, KG. We’ve known each other since preschool. With my trusty bundle of Burmese phrases and her forthright interviewing skills, we make a good travel team. The locals we encounter all seem very inclined to talk and have been providing rambling answers to our rambling questions, which KG has been recording on her digital SLR with the view to doing some radio stories when she gets back home. One hotel owner seemed to think we were VIP and drove us back to our guesthouse in the company car. It feels like we’re somehow already in the loop 9not that I’m sure what The Loop is, but I think we’re in it – woo!).

That being said, we are very much on the tourist trail, and it’s starting to become a tourist multi-laned highway. Unexpectedly, there’s WiFi everywhere, and being ‘on the grid’ with all our needs attended to, despite the rumors, invokes a sort of disappointing relief. In Bagan there are painted signs advertising fruit shakes, air-con, foot massages and Indian, Chinese and Western food sprouting up like capitalist weeds on the sides of the dust-covered streets, not to mention a ubiquitous supply of horse-drawn carts with leathery, bored-looking Burmese drivers and underwhelmed-looking flubby white people sitting unsteadily on top. It’s sort of charming, sort of naff. With things changing at an at an ever-increasing rate since the floodgates opened three years ago, I guess more and more tourist traps will be an inevitable side effect.

The sense of excitement at being in Burma at the moment – the last ‘Asian Frontier’ aside from North Korea – is mixed with a mounting anxiety that very soon it will be just like everywhere else in the globalized world. That you have to see it now, now, NOW – before it’s too late and the oversized digital Gucci billboards pop up and McDonald’s start pumping out the Happy Meals and there’s nowhere left to explore on earth without being part of a million-strong expedition of fellow chump tourists. Would-be travellers. It’s a disturbing thought.

Digital photo shop - the times they are a changin' (slowly)

Digital photo shop – the times they are a changin’ (slowly)

But for the purposes of this 10-day trip, we’re embracing the tourist thing. We even sensibly picked up a photocopied version of Lonely Planet Myanmar in a Yangon street market, which KG refers to tenderly as ‘the LP’. The chapter on Inle Lake mentions a jumping cat monastery and a ‘hot spring with tofu’ but we’re consciously adopting a non-committal/skeptical attitude to these sorts of intriguing but suspect prescriptions. The plan for the next 2 days is to eschew FOMO, wandera round, interview some more locals about what they think of all the changes that are happening, rent cheap rickety bicycles with no brakes instead of those shiny motorized “e-bikes” by way of resisting modernity, and visit the lake.

Everyone says it’s breathtaking but I’ve learnt (the hard way) that in these situations it’s better to keep one’s expectations low.

Photo Essay – old leaves of 2013

2013 was in many ways a fucker and I’m glad it’s expired. But there were also many new leaves scattered throughout the Year I Turned 30 – literal foliage, emblems of self-regeneration, seasonal changeover and the transient nature of being with all its green, diaphanous possibilities.

There was also a mound of festering mulch. Some of that has been cleared up, set alight or raked to the side to make way for the freshly falling, non-rotten leaves of another new year.

In writing class I learnt the phrase ‘dead metaphor’ and although I think I might have murdered this one, I’m not going to let it go.

leaf, lēf/ noun: leaf; plural noun: leaves.

1. a flattened structure of a higher plant, typically green and bladelike, that is attached to a stem directly or via a stalk. Leaves are the main organs of photosynthesis and transpiration.

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When I arrived here in September, I was struck by the size and variation of the plant-life in South East Asia.

 
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Everything seemed more vivid.

 

 
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There is a lot of stray rubbish in Mae Sot (see the scrap of red in this photo) and no apparent recycling system. In Burma, it’s even more of a problem. Development seems to invariably bring with it an influx of garbage.

 
 
 

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These lily-like fronds are in the garden of Borderline, the place where I go to stave off anxiety and try to write. It doesn’t have WiFi. Nuf said.

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Like leaves in nature, walls are a feature of the built environment that have been attracting my attention. This one is a stained, mouldy, colour-streaked part of someone’s concrete fence in the Burmese migrant district, at the tail-end of the rainy season. I miss bike-riding through those mud puddles.

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I spent Christmas visiting relatives of friends in a refugee camp south of Mae Sot.

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Young sugar cane

Before they arrived over 7 years ago, my friends’ brothers were farmers in Chin State, Burma, and they’ve managed to secure a a small plot of land just outside the camp perimetre. The vegetables they grow and sell in the camp market are the sole source of income for the family.

Cabbage patch

Cabbage patch

Selecting something for Christmas dinner

Selecting something for Christmas dinner

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Towards the end of the year I started researching small-scale agriculture, income generation and sustainable livelihood initiatives with the view to expanding the Kitchen Garden Project – a plot of land, part-owned, part-rented, on which the organisation I volunteer for grows some extra food for the women and children in its shelters.

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I dropped the new leaf metaphor to my colleagues in the middle of a brainstorm for a draft funding proposal. They liked it – the Burmese language is well-supplied with nature metaphors – so, if it eventuates, it will be called the New Leaf Project.

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Happy New Year!!