Conjuring Paris Memories

Three years ago I knew I would someday soon write this post.  As a teenager I had visited Paris and then thirteen years later I returned while in graduate school.  I thought it would be fitting to return yet again after another thirteen years, this time with my daughter.  Though I missed the mark by three years, C and I did make it this year, and what a trip it was!  So many things that could go wrong did.  I could not have foreseen how either this year’s trip or this post would turn out, especially how digging into my memories would reveal some surprising similarities — it turns out that every trip to Paris has had its hiccups.

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In the Latin Quarter – for some reason the only photo I have of the 1989 trip to Paris

Summer 1989.  My sisters and I spent a month with my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany.   This was my first time traveling overseas–the trip that would launch all the rest.  For the July 4th weekend we took the train to Paris for a four day holiday.  If you know Paris in summer then you know it is hot and crowded.  If you know your Paris/French history, you then realize July 1989 was the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the start of the French Revolution, and French independence.  Also, the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.  Perhaps not the best time to visit Paris.  Yet we did.

It has been so many years but I still remember quite a few things.  We stayed in a B&B on Montmartre.  I noted in my journal “we trudged up steep hills and stairways, dragging our luggage…but it [the hotel] is quaint and the owner is a kindly, cheerful man whose wife will serve us breakfast to our room in the morning.” Yet that merry man and his wife later locked my sisters and I out of the hotel.  They did not want to give keys to children and one evening while my aunt and uncle caught a show at the Moulin Rouge, we went to wander the artist stalls.  Returning just after 8 PM we found the front door bolted tight, all the lights off.  What could we do but ring the doorbell?  Again and again, til finally they grudgingly let us in.  We were on their sh*t list after that, but the croissants they brought in the morning were still buttery soft and delicious.

At the Arc de Triomphe we were, for some unknown reason, unable to find an underground passageway so we ran across the roundabout, all six lanes or so of traffic.  Probably not our brightest idea, but it was certainly exhilarating!  We then walked to the Louvre.  It is not actually all that far, but at the time I thought it took forever!  Temperatures were high and we were sweating; the Champs-Elyses and Jardin des Tuileries were lined with flags from across the world as many foreign leaders and tourists were in town for the 200th anniversary celebrations.  I saw a Tale of Two Cities chess set in a store window along the way and wanted to buy it, fancying myself a budding chess player or at least chess set collector (neither of which was borne out).  We arrived at the Louvre to find the line so long we did not even go in!

Also, although we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame, we spent little time inside and did not go up to see the gargoyles or the view.  Instead, we hung out in the park behind the cathedral feeding the pigeons.  At some point, while waiting on a subway platform, we were subjected to tear gas wafting in from above.  That was my first tear gas experience (I had have two more, both in Korea).

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                                         Extraordinary — 2002 but nearly the same view as 2018                                            (and no, I did not check my old photos before my new trip)

Fast forward to Spring 2002 when on a lark I decided Paris would be my graduate school Spring Break destination.  Seeing Paris alone as a 30 year old is very different than as a 16 year old with family.  I am sure that does not come as a surprise to anyone.  And yet once again things did not all go as planned.

Six days was the perfect amount of time in Paris.  I visited the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Musee d’Orsay, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Picasso Museum, the Dali Museum, the Rodin museum, Montmartre, Notre Dame, the Montparnasse and Pere Lanchaise cemeteries, the catacombs, took a river cruise and a bike tour.  I think I covered just about everything. 

2 ParisBut I was so tired when I arrived and then the airport was confusing.  There were signs, but I do not think they told anybody anything.  I changed money at a terrible rate with a horrible charge, and could not work the phones (although truthfully I don’t think anyone could — foreigners were staring blankly at payphones all over the airport), and was treated rudely by some guy at the tourist information counter who surely thought I must be a moron given I was unable to work the phones  Welcome to France!

My visit to the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, and the Musee d’Orsay went off without a hitch.  At Notre Dame I not only spent more time inside the church but even ventured to the tower.  The Louvre though was a different story.

On Monday I went to the Louvre.  It is a really big place.  It is said that if one spent one minute before each of the art works exhibited it would take 200 days, 24 hours a day, to see it all.  I arrived just after 9 AM and took a break at 12:30 for lunch in the Louvre cafe.  After lunch I planned to spend another hour there and was on my way up to the 2nd floor, when a siren went off.  Whir-whir-whir.  Then an announcement: “All patrons should now exit the Louvre immediately.  You will be notified once the security situation has returned to normal and you can return.”  The elevators and escalators were shut off as well as a number of rooms sealed.  [This was a year before the Da Vinci Code came out – but I saw those security doors come down]  What was happening?  When I reached the foyer, people were still being sold tickets and entering the museum.  I asked a guard and he said he did not know what was going on but that it seemed okay to go back in.  I spent another hour on the 2nd floor; there was no other announcement about the “security situation.”

3 ParisAnd then there was the visit to the Arc de Triomphe.  As I arrived in front of the Arc and starting towards the underpass, a police caravan rode up.  Two motorcycles and about five trucks of police.  The police jump out, in full riot gear, with helmets and shields and such, and stand in formation on the circle facing the Arc.  What is happening?  I look around for snipers or a jumper or any situation that would warrant this response.  Nothing.  Just other tourists milling around.  The underpass is closed to I walk to the other side.  The police in the tunnel do not do anything to stop walkers.  Turns out there was a strike of hospital personnel that day and the police were there for them.  After 15 minutes the stairway to the Arc reopens and the police caravan turns on the sirens and speeds away.

A last minute trip to the Cemetery of Pere Lanchaise ended in a frantic rush.  I made it to Jim Morrison’s headstone before two guards approached me to let me know they were closing.  There was still 25 minutes left but they told me at 5:30 the gates were locked and they let the dogs out.  I tried to find the grave of Frederic Chopin with their directions but I was too preoccupied with being locked in a cemetery at night with dogs hunting me, so I just headed for the exit.  And the search for Victor Hugo’s home took far too long wandering small streets only to find out it was closed.

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A beautiful day in Paris — one of my most absolute favorite pictures of me

What really stays in my memory though is my bicycle tour.  I barely remember where we went but only that I loved seeing the city from a different angle.  I had walked, and walked, and walked around the city for hours on end  (Oh how I loved all that walking! I miss being in a walkable city), so a few hours on wheels was very refreshing.  The weather was quite warm for March–I was in a t-shirt–and the sky sunny and clear.

I found myself on the airplane waiting on the tarmac about to head home.  I sat staring out the window.  And then there was this strange sound.  A ticking sound.  Several passengers around me could hear it.  And the flight attendants were looking for something.  The plane continued to sit just a little way past pushback.  Tick. Tick. Tick.  The flight attendants rushed down the aisle.  We sat there a good 10 minutes and we began to move.

Fast forward to April 2018 and as we sat on the airplane bound for Addis Ababa listening to a deportee yelp in the back of the plane, flight attendants rushing up and down the aisles, and concerned passengers looking around and I thought of my past and present Paris trips – of the tear gas, the labor strikes, unpredictable weather, closed for renovation museums, odd airplane events, and other out of the ordinary experiences.  Though heading home again, I already looked forward to the next Paris adventure and hope it will not be so long in coming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Escape to the Cape (Town)

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C jumps for joy atop Table Mountain

Cape Town.  I have long wanted to visit.  In 2010 I visited South Africa.  I was living in Jakarta and one of my best friends was living in Luanda, so we met up in Johannesburg for ten days of Jo’burg, Pretoria, and Kruger National Park.  But not Cape Town.  So after years of hearing about the city that some say is their favorite in Africa, and others say is their favorite in the world, it was time to experience it for myself.

Cape Town.  I have long wanted to visit.  In 2010 I visited South Africa.  I was living in Jakarta and one of my best friends was living in Luanda, so we met up in Johannesburg for ten days of Jo’burg, Pretoria, and Kruger National Park.  But not Cape Town.  So after years of hearing about the city that some say is their favorite in Africa, and others say is their favorite in the world, it was time to experience it for myself.

First we had to get there.  Seems simple enough.  Go to airport.  Get on plane.  Fly to South Africa.  If it is just you traveling, it probably is that straightforward.  If you are traveling with a minor…  Nope.  In 2015, South Africa instituted new laws for anyone — South African or otherwise — traveling with children under the age of 18.  Along with a passport, your child(ren)’s unabridged birth certificate is now an essential travel document.  This is if you are one or two parents traveling together with your kids.  If you are married but not traveling together, you need to have the affidavit granting permission.  And if you are a single parent you are supposed to travel with whatever document gave you that status — a divorce decree, a death certificate.  My status is fairly simple; I have never been married and I am the only parent on the birth certificate.  Yet that fact seemed to complicate things when traveling to South Africa with my child. The year before the American Citizen Services section in Pretoria had said I would be good with just my daughter’s birth certificate.  It was time to check that.

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View of Chapman’s Peak and Hout Bay from SC’s home

We rolled up to the check-in desk.  I smiled at the woman.  She smiled at me.  I handed over our passports.  Then she asked for the birth certificate and an affidavit.  I handed over the BC but said I did not have an “affidavit.”  The woman left the desk with the BC and huddled together with another woman.  They looked at the BC.  They looked at me.  They looked at one another.  What the what?  She then returned and began typing away on the computer – not a word to me.  Were we getting boarding passes or not?  After some seconds that felt much, much longer, I asked.  She told me the BC was sufficient.  Whew.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  But then she stepped away again.  Again some consultations with the supervisor.  She returned.  “I am afraid that we are going to need the affidavit.  Please step aside.”  Oh no!  I pulled out my secret weapon–a notarized document everyone had told me was unnecessary.  She looked it over, told me all was in order, and then printed out our boarding passes.  Crisis averted.  We were on our way!

Our flight took us to Johannesburg, where we cleared immigration (no single parent issues there), and then flew on to Cape Town.  My friend from college, SC sent an Uber to pick us up.  It took a wee bit of work to find him.  Once in the car I joked with the driver that the parking garage at the airport is larger than most buildings in Malawi (though I expect its true).  We wound through the darkened streets from the airport to SC’s home.  Even in the darkness, the development compared to Malawi was obvious.  At SC’s home, a smallish but beautifully appointed condo fronting the beach at Hout Bay, SC and I spent time catching up on old times and new while C and SC’s daughter M got to know one another.

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Norval Foundation sculpture garden

On our first full day we puttered around in the morning in our pajamas having a long leisurely breakfast while the kids played.  We took advantage of SC’s amazing view of the bay from both her yard and balcony.  Then we all headed out to the Norval Foundation to meet a half dozen of SC’s mom friends and their kids for a Mother’s Day lunch.  It was an interesting group, including another American Foreign Service Officer (working at the Cape Town Consulate) and another single mother.

The Norval Foundation is a just-opened (only two weeks before our visit) private museum of contemporary and South African art and sculpture garden, in addition to an incredibly beautifully designed restaurant.  There we gathered for an epic luncheon lasting over three hours.  Part of the reason it took so long was extremely slow service, but it was also the conversation.  And while the moms talked, the kids took advantage of the garden.  I regret I did not walk the whole garden or visit inside the museum!

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C as a squirrel monkey playground

On Monday SC had some morning meetings and M had preschool, so I booked my very first Uber driver to take C & I to the World of Birds (and surprise, surprise, our first Uber driver was a woman from Malawi!).  My initial impression of the place was not favorable.  I thought we might only spent 30 minutes, maybe an hour there.  But I was wrong.  World of Birds may predominantly feature birds, but there are many other animals there.  C particularly enjoyed seeing the guinea pigs, marmoset, servals (mostly she enjoyed that one serval took an immediate dislike to me and growled and hissed at me), and the squirrel monkeys.  The last were the absolute best as visitors can go inside the enclosure, sit still, and if monkeys crawled on you, then so be it.  We easily spent 30 minutes there alone.  C also loved the birds.  She took a liking in particular to the golden pheasant, which she immediately (and correctly) identified as Chinese.

 

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Penguins at Boulder’s Beach

That afternoon we met up again with SC and M, and headed to Noordhoek via the stunning Chapman’s Peak drive (rated as one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world).  There we enjoyed a long, late lunch while the children wore themselves out on the playground.  At 4 SC headed out–she would fly to London that night on business.  The girls and I returned to SC’s house for an evening of play and silliness.

 

Tuesday found C and I saying goodbye to M and her nanny, then Uber-ing to our hotel in the heart of Cape Town.  We settled in quickly and then walked to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront.  There we rode the Cape Wheel, visited the Two Oceans Aquarium, and searched for the best rocks at the Scratch Patch.  These were all fun, but there were also simple pleasures we had missed in Malawi — eating at McDonald’s (please do not judge — there are none in Malawi), walking through a shopping mall, the presence of sidewalks.

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View of the Peninsula from the Cape Point lighthouse

The following day we headed out on an epic tour of the Cape Peninsula.  We were once again blessed with stunning weather.  I had planned for weather in the region of 60-70 degrees but we were getting mid to upper 70s, even 80s.  The sky a dazzling blue.  While some may eschew the group bus tour, I sometimes find it provides just what we need.  This tour took us to Boulder’s Beach at Simon’s Town to see the penguins and the Cape Point National Park, to include the lighthouse, funicular, and the Cape of Good Hope.

IMG_0807This is someplace I had long wanted to visit, but I can not even begin to describe seeing it in person, being there with my daughter.  Everything was perfect.  Well, not everything.  There are downsides to taking a group tour after all.  One being having to wait for folks who are not conscious of other peoples’ time.  There was a walking tour from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope.  The guide informed us all beforehand that the hike would require a level of fitness, i.e. those with heart, back, feet, knee, breathing or other such problems should not join.  And still someone joined who should not have, and we all had to wait an extra hour for that individual to make their way to the bus.  This brought us back to the city late and earned us another hour sitting in traffic.

The obligatory trip up Table Mountain was next on our agenda.  Again, the day broke to reveal another absolutely beautiful day.  We took the hop on hop off sightseeing bus to the Table Mountain visitor’s center.  I had read of the potential long lines at the aerial cableway and could hardly believe our luck to find there was no line at all!  We simply paid and walked right on.  The gondola is large, it can hold 65 passengers, but it too was only half full.  What magic was this?  And then, the car began to rotate.  No kidding.  Although I had read up enough to know the aerial cableway existed, I had not known it would turn.  Mind blown.  And the views.  Wow.

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View from the cable car as it nears the top; a dassie chills out

At the top we took our time.  With the temps in the 70s and us standing 3500 feet atop a near-bare stone plateau, we were in need of some popsicles.  While looking out towards the southwest, with the spine of the mountains directly in front with the ocean against one slope, we caught sight of what appeared to be a large rodent of sorts on the terrace below.  My daughter, being the animal lover she is, identified it as a hyrax.  Turns out locals call them dassies.  But dassie or hyrax they were plentiful and inquisitive, and our visit to Table Mountain turned into as much about spotting these creatures as drinking in the breathtaking views.

We continued on the sightseeing bus back to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront for lunch and then a short cruise of the harbor.  We were sleepy, lulled by the warmth of the afternoon sun and frankly little else we would see that day could compare with Table Mountain, though having Thai food and frozen yogurt at the mall sure came close.

DSC_0068The next day C and I ventured 45 minutes out of Cape Town to the Cheetah Outreach Centre.  C loves cheetahs.  They are her spirit animal.  In fact, she has told me for at least two years that she is half cheetah.  It’s true – that she tells me that.  In researching Cape Town I had found out about this place where one could not only see, but also touch cheetahs.  I had not realized how far out of town it is located.  I began to think it would be easier not to go, except that C would never forgive me.  Though I tried to explain the distance, she looked stricken at the idea of not going.  I had to make it happen.  Part of the problem was that my data roaming, though on, did not work.  I could order an Uber when connected to wi-fi, but otherwise could not.  There is no wi-fi at the center.  I thought of renting a car, but just was not keen.  I thought of pre-ordering an Uber for pick-up but was not sure how long we would need and concerned that without a connection to data, I would not be notified of the pick-up car details.  I took a chance though of just ordering an Uber and leaving it to fate to figure it out later.  And it worked.  The driver asked us how we were getting back and I took down his number and called him when we finished.

Given C’s age we were only able to take part in the adult cheetah encounter (she was too young to pet baby cheetahs, meerkat, or bat eared foxes).  No matter.  It is not every day you get the chance to stroke the fur of a live cheetah.  Though the Uber there and back cost more than the entrance and encounter fees by double, the big smile on my daughter’s face was, as they say, priceless.

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C and a squirrel have a chat

Afterwards, we headed back to town and on to the Company’s Garden.  Originally set up in the 1650s to grow produce for the Dutch East India Company “refreshment station,” where ships restocked on the voyage from Europe to the East Indies, it is now a heritage park on prime real estate in the center of old Cape Town.  And while the site of a beautiful historic garden is a good enough reason to visit, it is also the home to some incredibly hungry, and tame, squirrels.  At the park entrance several vendors sell packages of nuts to feed the very friendly rodents.  We hardly made it ten steps when a squirrel confronted us.  He knew the deal.  He knew we were newbies.  He knew enough to try to get our attention before we even entered the formal part of the garden.  Before we met his many friends.  He lucked out but so did many other squirrels.  I have never before in my life seen squirrels just run right up to people, climb up their leg, sit on their shoulder, and try to pry nuts from one’s hand.  It was so awesome.  I almost forgot that we had pet a cheetah that morning.

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Guinea fowl in Kirstenbosch

For our final day, we headed to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.  Located on the lush Eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is touted as one of the most beautiful botanic gardens in the world.  Certainly the setting is hard to beat and the dramatic backdrop reminded me of the Limahuli Gardens in Kauai.  Our favorite part of the gardens was probably the tree canopy walkway, which literally snakes its way through the tree tops 12 meters off the ground, so much so that it is referred to as the “boomslang” (tree snake).  Our visit coincided with our first cloudy day, yet the views were no less amazing.  SC and M joined us for another long lunch at the wonderful Moyo restaurant located at Kirstenbosch.

It was not easy leaving Cape Town.  It is easy to see why it is a favorite destination.  I very nearly had to drag C kicking and screaming to leave.  She insisted she wanted to stay.  I could hardly argue; the trip had been near perfect.  We hit so many of the highlights, enjoyed fabulous weather, spent time with friends, and had many, many great experiences with wildlife.   The Cap has spoiled us for upcoming vacations.

 

The Paris Excursion

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It was a trip loooooong in the planning.  We had easily been talking about it for a year.  I bought my plane tickets and booked my hotels six months beforehand.  It was Springtime, even Easter time, in Paris after all.  There was no time to waste.  We both had visited Paris in the past and this was just about seeing each other and introducing the kiddos to the City of Lights.  Single parent friends with a 25 year old friendship.

As the departure date grew closer, I began to have a few misgivings.  The forecast indicated cooler and wetter weather than we had hoped for.  And work, it was busy.  Very busy.  I began to think this could possibly be the worst time I could have chosen for a holiday.  But it was C’s school holiday.  Also, our first longish vacation since arriving in Malawi.  And, as one person told me, “croissants still taste good in the cold and the rain.”

We departed on a Friday.  Ethiopian Airlines from Lilongwe to Addis Ababa via Malawi’s second city Blantyre.  A two hour layover in possibly one of the worst airports in the world (Bole International Airport seems to be in constant construction mode), then a seven hour flight to Paris, arriving at 6:30 AM.  Yes, AM.  We both had the sniffles and had developed a cough, but we were no worse for wear.  After a wee bit of difficulty finding our shuttle to our hotel, we checked in before 10.  CZ and Little C, who also visited us in Shanghai, were already in Paris, though at a different hotel.  CZ reserved her hotel with points and had been able to redeem at the swanky Westin.  Swank was too dear for me, so I booked around the corner at half the cost.

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View toward Montmartre from the Roue de Paris

We met up and hit a sidewalk cafe for brunch.  It was simple.  Avocado toast.  Fruit salad.  Hot cocoa.  It cost a pretty penny but there is nothing like it in Malawi.  We headed then to the Tuileries where C and Little C enjoyed the carousel and trampoline park.  Next, we rode the Roue de Paris, the Paris Ferris Wheel, located at Place de la Concorde.  This summer the wheel will be disabled so I wanted to ride it before it is gone.

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I just wanted a picture of my kid on the carousel, but that metal scaffolding in the background…

Not having tired out our 6 and nearly 4 year olds nearly enough, we hustled them on to the metro and headed over to the Eiffel Tower.  We had no plans to go up but both kids wanted to see it.  And the moment when they caught sight of it — fantastic!  They were so taken it with it took a little convincing to get them to move along to the beautiful double-decker carousel across the street.  Several rides and a snack later they were satisfied.

Next up we planned to take the one hour cruise on the River Seine with the Bateaux Parisiens.  We could all use a little time off our feet and give the kids a good view of many famous landmarks.  But here is where we ran into our first bit of trouble.  The boats were running, but due to heavy rainfall the Seine levels were too high to take the usual route.  We declined.  We headed back to our hotels.

Day 2.  Easter Sunday.  We had been lucky to score tickets to an egg hunt and Easter festivities at the Parc Andre Citroen.  We had a late start in the morning – CZ and Little C still had jet lag and C and I had overnight-flight-itis.  It was also on the cold side and quite overcast.  Yet the Easter event turned out to be quite a lot of fun, and all for 5 Euros.  The kids took part in a super easy egg hunt and then turned in their eggs for a fabulous gift bag.  They also were able to play a few free games and pick up some more toys and books.  Afterwards though the plan had been to ride the hot air balloon (actually a gigantic helium balloon) that is also located in the park; however, due to high winds it was not operating.  The kids were happy to play at the park’s many playgrounds but I felt a bit grumpy to miss out on something else from my Paris 2018 must-do list.  We had lunch and headed over to the Paris Aquarium.  At least that was on my list (because I have a passion for aquariums — I am serious).

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The children play in the shadow of Notre Dame

By the third day, the sniffles C and I had acquired during our flights had turned into full on colds with hacking-up-lungs strength coughs.  Instead of admiring the Moulin Rouge as we awaiting the mini train to the top of Montmartre, I headed to a pharmacy.  I came all the way to Paris to go to a pharmacy… Then as I drugged myself and C and we waited for the mini train, C and Little C played on a giant sewer grate with air flowing up.  One of our best 30 minutes in Paris.  I kid you not.

The train ride was fun.  The massive crowds of people at the top, less so.  We grabbed lunch in the square.  C tried chocolate mousse for the first time.  Declared it delicious.  No doubt about it, it was really, really good.  The architecture beautiful.  The artists’ works amazing.  I had been to Montmartre in 1989 and 2003; I love it.  Yet the low temps, light rain, pushing a stroller on cobblestone through swarms of people, and our colds were getting to us.  We decided to locate the Dali Museum — CZ had read that kids actually respond well to Dali’s whimsical and quirky works of art and it would be a chance to be indoors for awhile.  We found it, but wouldn’t you know it, closed for renovation!  And then C had had it.  She had no interests in taking the funicular, no interest in finding the carousel.  Something is definitely wrong when my kid does not want to ride a carousel!  CZ and Little C stayed at Montmartre and C and I made our way back to the hotel for a nap.

I expect right about now everyone is really, really jealous of our trip to Paris.  Flooding, high winds, chilly temperatures, a closed museum, and taking care of a sick kid while feeling under the weather yourself.  It certainly had all the hallmarks of a magical getaway.  Then we learned of the transportation strike to be held over the next two days.  #winning

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C as Princess Anna in front of the Disneyland Paris entrance

On our fourth day luckily I was not the only tired mommy.  CZ too was flagging.  With the strike we were not sure of our transport options and wanted to stay close by.  Lucky for us we were staying in the heart of Paris, so we walked through the Tuileries to pass the Louvre and then over to Notre Dame to show the kids the church and gargoyles.  They oohed and ahhed and then made haste for the playground.  Given the state of the few playgrounds in Malawi, this still made our trip to Paris worth it.  Although it felt the coldest day so far, the restaurant in the Latin Quarter warmed us all right up.  It was cosy, crowded, with good food, and the waiter messed up multiple things on our order.  C’est la vie.

No worries.  The following day we headed to one of the happiest places on Earth: Paris Disneyland.

First though we needed transport.  We had had the idea to take the RER train to the Paris Disneyland station.  Kids love trains.  CZ and I love trains.  But there was the transportation strike.  Although both of us were beginning to think walking 15 minute from the hotel to the train station with 2 little kids, their strollers, and our luggage might be too much.  (OK, I was still convinced we could do it though I was strongly sensing CZ thought me off my rocker on this point.) So we booked an Uber – and we rode to our Disneyland hotel in the comfort of a sleek Mercedes van.  And the sky was blue!  And the weather warm!  C’s cough was gone!  The magic of Disney?

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I watched the kids so CZ could ride Space Mountain

I would like to say our 5 days at Paris Disneyland were idyllic, but any parent of a child would see right through that.  Little kids passing the Rainforest Cafe gift shop, the World of Disney, and LEGO stores every single day, not to mention all the goodies in Disneyland itself, is not a recipe for contentment — well unless the parent buys many of said goods.  C managed to wrangle a whole Princess Anna costume, including cloak, out of me.  She wanted the boots too but I negotiated for 2 LEGO sets instead.  Yeah, I have never been very good at haggling, clearly.  We all just had a really good time.

It was with great sadness that our final day in France arrived and we had to say goodbye to our friends (and to Paris and all it has to offer, which is, no surprise, different from Malawi).  C and I had our final dinner in Paris in the airport — at McDonald’s.  Don’t judge.  There is no McDs in Malawi.  Then we boarded our overnight flight from Paris to Addis Ababa.  We settled into our seats, preparing to start snoozing as soon as possible.  We watched the safety video, the flight attendants prepared for push back…

Then someone in the back of the plane, about ten rows back, started yelling.  In the first few seconds I will admit my thoughts went to terrorism — when someone in the back of the plane suddenly starts yelling “Listen up people!” once we are all buckled in, it is probably natural to think so.  But as he continued his purpose became clear “Help me!  I am a refugee.  They are taking me back to my country and they will kill me.”  He repeated this over and over and over in loud yelps.  He was a handcuffed deportee being escorted by 2-3 armed French police.  What was amazing — still amazing — to me is that so many other passengers inserted themselves into the drama.  Passengers were verbally sparring with the police officers and the flight attendants.  I am fairly sure in the US this would guarantee these passengers an escort off the plane.  But in this case, it did not.  Over time, other passengers came from the front of the plane to also throw in their two cents.  There was definitely a camp for the deportee and a camp against.  And no respect for the police or flight attendants.  It took over an hour to resolve the issue — the removal of the deportee from the plane.

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CZ watched the kids so I could get my hot air balloon flight at the Disney Village

Our Addis to Lilongwe flight too had a late departure.  No reason given.  I fell asleep soon after boarding only to wake up two hours later and find we were still on the tarmac!  As soon as we landed I sent a message to my nanny/housekeeper/driver who had come to pick us up at the airport.  She said she was there though not feeling very well.  I tried to get C and I through immigration and baggage claim and customs as quick as possible.  TJ, our nanny, waited outside.  As we walked to the car, she collapsed in the parking lot.  Malaria.  There I am after traveling for 14 hours with C, a cart with 2 suitcases, a stroller, a backpack, still with my racking cough that doubles me over, attending to my disoriented and very ill nanny lying in the parking lot.  I do not know where my car is — TJ has the keys in her hand but can barely talk or lift her head.  But a bunch of good Samaritans help us out.  One man runs through the parking lot with me looking for my car — my nanny had been able to whisper my license plate to him.  We find it and I drive quickly to where my nanny and C wait.  I had left my 6 year old and my handbag with my wallet and passport sitting on the luggage cart.  Two men helped TJ into the back seat.  Another put my luggage in the trunk.  And yet another got C into her car seat.

My nanny went to the hospital for four days.  I was diagnosed with a lower respiratory infection and stayed home from work for two days.

So wow, yeah, that was certainly not the Paris getaway I had planned.  Never a dull day for sure.  CZ and I cannot wait to plan our next trip!

 

(The Not Quite) Lake Escape

15A three day weekend.

The third of the year, but as we had stayed put the first two it was time for C and I to get out of Lilongwe for a mini mommy and me vacation.

I had had some big plans.  A friend from college, SC and her daughter M, now currently residing in Cape Town, were to make the flight up to visit.  C was beside herself with excitement at the prospect of guests from out of town.  She had on more than one occasion made it clear that she would show them to their room and she would show them around the house and yard.  She warned me repeatedly that my job was to pick them up at the airport, but it was her job to show them around Panda B&B, which is what she named our house for visitors.  She had taken pains to put little accents in their room – from placing two hyacinth hair clips left over from her Moana birthday on to the bed, to also putting her blue bird desk lamp on the dresser (with a blue spider web on it — I don’t know, she thought it made it homey?).  For a finishing touch she placed a plush Panda with a personal welcome drawing on the pillow.

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The M10?

Two days before they were to arrive SC messaged me with the bad news: due to an unexpected, and extremely important, work commitment, they had to cancel.  C was devastated.  Frankly, I was too.  I considered even cancelling the hotel I had booked and changing to someplace closer.  But I had been looking forward to going to the southern part of Lake Malawi for some time, and the deadline for cancelling without penalty had passed.  So it would be Cape Maclear or bust.

Early Saturday morning we packed up the car and hit the road.  I will be honest, I was a wee bit nervous.  This would be only my second road trip outside of Lilongwe (with me at the wheel) and Malawian roads are not for the faint of heart.  The first part was fine enough — the M1 north to the M14 east, the same route to Senga Bay we took in November.  Ninety minutes out we headed south on the M5.  Don’t let the names of theses highways fool you, they are two lane roads with little or no shoulder.  Sealed but full of potholes and unexpected surprises around bends (a truck stopped?  a herd of goats? a police checkpoint?) But the drive was pleasant enough.  Then just after Mua, my GPS directed me to make a left onto the M10.  And there in front of me stretched a dirt road.  I checked the GPS.  Yeah, I made the correct turn.  So we bounced along the dirt road as it gradually narrowed.  I hoped it would not end.  Thankfully after a bumpy 10 miles or so we returned to tarmac.

The last 20 minutes or so, once reaching the Cape Maclear Nature Reserve (and the area of the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the sealed road once again fizzled out.  With the exception of a few enterprising youngsters wielding hefty garden tools attempting to shake down passing motorists, it was uneventful and we soon pulled into our lodge.

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Along the beach

Within a few hours I was disappointed.  The lodge, despite costing a pretty penny, had no WiFi, no restaurant (both advertised online).  They offered lunch — but with no menu we were told we select from a few fish or chicken dishes.  Despite being only one of two apparent guests ordering lunch, or even at the lodge at all, it took more than 45 minutes to bring us the food.  We had an option between Coca-Cola, Fanta Pineapple, or water to drink.  The whole place looked tired and worn.  We went for a walk on the beach.  Not five feet from the property and I was waylaid by a man wearing a vest who said he ran boat tours.  I said I just wanted to walk on the beach with my daughter.  He said no problem, he could tell me about the boat trips along the way.  I asked him to cut to the chase and tell me the price — I was interested in a trip out on the lake — but he would not reveal them right there and then and said he had a set price sheet he could show me.  US$35 per person!  I said no.  We went on our way.

C had put on her swimsuit, desperate to play in the water, but this was different from where we had been at Senga Bay.  The beach is hard pebbles and there is lots of glass.  The village butts right up to the lake, the lodges, dive joints, and hostels in-between.  Locals use the lake for everything — for their ablations, brushing teeth, washing clothes, washing dishes, fishing, and play.   I saw the rusted handlebars of a bicycle in the shallows, a long pipe ran into the water and along the beach, carrying water somewhere to the village.  I let her only a foot or two in.  She was not happy.  Neither was I.

At the hotel C swam for hours in the pool as I contemplated checking out the next day.  For dinner we declined to once again order chicken or fish from the hotel and headed to Gecko’s, where a lively atmosphere, a decent singer, a mancala game, and quite possibly the best pizza in Malawi revived us.  Despite the hard and somewhat lumpy mattress we both slept very well.

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The center of the village

The next morning I was still mulling over whether to check out.  But C saw other children in the pool and was cheered.  She instantly made friends; she’s sweet and friendly and open — though our giant orca pool toy probably didn’t hurt.  And I let go.  I let go of the idea of “doing something” on this trip.   Sitting by the pool, reading a book, watching my daughter play is doing something.  Striking up a conversation with the other parents while we lazed at the pool watching our kids is also doing something.  I learned they are Lebanese-Malawian and own a prominent shopping center in Lilongwe.  For lunch C and I went next door to the Funky Cichlid, a backpacker dive, where I had the most disappointing spaghetti bolognaise of my life (it took 45 minutes to make and when it arrived it had spaghetti and ground beef and cheese but no sign of tomato sauce — I was told to add it from the ketchup on the table) and C hated her burger.  No problem.  That day I was not bothered.  It was funny.  We shared a KitKat instead.  Then went back and took a nap.  Then headed back to the pool.  Dinner was at Hiccups Pub, upon recommendation of our new Lebanese-Malawi friends, where C enjoyed a chicken shawarma and flatbread and I lapped up quite possibly the best hummus in Malawi.

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village children and shop

On our final morning C and I took a stroll through the village.  At 7:30 in the morning it was quiet — most likely with the majority of the population long awake and on with their day, bathing or doing chores or fishing at the lake only meters away.  Malawi is poor, its one of the poorest countries on Earth, and the majority of the inhabitants of the village poor as well.  I do not want to sugarcoat it.  I am afraid of romanticizing it in some way.  Several kids in the village regularly approach foreign tourists with handwritten notes asking for donations to support their transportation to a football game in a neighboring village.  There is no football game, of course, but I cannot fault them for trying.  Others will pester visitors to listen to their “boy band” and charge per song — but they are surprisingly good with their makeshift instruments, covers of popular songs such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and some pretty great dance moves.  But with the exception of some persistent (and relatively mild to other places I have been) requests to see someone’s shop or take a boat tour, the villagers were friendly, and busy going about their daily lives.

On the way back to Lilongwe we stopped at the Mua Mission, one of the oldest Catholic missions in Malawi founded in 1902, and the Kungoni Culture Center, which celebrates the cultures of the Ngoni, Yao, and Chewa tribes.  Historical and cultural sites are few in Malawi, museums even fewer, so it was a bit of a treat for me to stop here.  Though the museum is only three rooms, they are chock full of information and one could easily spend two hours there with the guide.  Lucky for the waiting Catholic University students, C and I went in for the express 30 minute tour, though including the gift shop and walking some of the grounds, we still spent an hour here.  C liked the room of Gule Wamkulu masks best.  (The Gule Wamkulu is a ritual dance of the Chewa people that involves costumes and masks, some quite elaborate.  The dance has been inscribed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage)

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Mua Mission

It was not quite the trip I had intended.  I had wanted to get away, and I think I had envisioned some kind of fancy lodge that kept Malawi at bay, but instead of an escape, we got a little more up close and personal.  At first it was uncomfortable, and to be honest, I am still processing it.  My expectations.  The reality.  The natural beauty and the everyday lives.  Economics.  Culture.  Environment.  Do not get me wrong.  I know a short walk on the beach and a walk through a village and a stop at a cultural center do not a deep cultural immersion make.  But it was eye opening for both C and I.

We will not soon forget it.  (especially as C lost her first tooth in the car on the way — a loose tooth, a bumpy road, and an apple are the ticket!)  And though I declared at first I would not go back, I already expect that an untruth.

 

Majete for Christmas

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A pool with a view

Our Christmas was not your usual snowy yuletide affair.  Though if I recall correctly, in the past twenty years I have spent only four in the U.S. and if given the choice I have a tendency to choose warmer climes over cold.  Still, I do not remember a Christmas quite like this – hot and humid, yes, been there and done that, but absent the African animals.

I knew being the new colleague on the block would likely mean a shorter holiday.  That I was prepared for.  The requirement to stay within Malawi though threw me for a loop.  Initially.

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Hippo, waterbuck, and impala by the banks of the Shire

Then I realized this was a wonderful opportunity for C and I to spend some time exploring Malawi.  I settled on Majete Wildlife Reserve located in Chikwawa District, in the far south-west of the country.  Majete is a Malawian success story.  Though established in 1955, by the 1990s the refuge had been poached to nearly nothing, with large game completely gone from the area and only a few hardy animals present, though at critically low populations.    Things looked pretty bleak for the park until 1993 when African Parks, an international NGO focused on environmental conservation issues in Africa (they just appointed His Royal Highness Prince Harry as their President), working with the Government of Malawi, took over management and rehabilitation of the reserve.  Today the reserve and its animals are thriving with more animals to be relocated to Majete in the next few years.  It is currently the only place in Malawi where one can see the Big Five (elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, and leopard).

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Baby yellow baboon

On Friday, December 22 C and boarded our flight from Lilongwe to Blantyre.  The 40 minute flight, just twice as long as our 20 minute drive from home to the airport, was probably the shortest flight my daughter has ever taken, one of our closest getaways.  C, who usually asks me how many planes we will take to our destination, was very amused that just about the time we reached our cruising altitude the pilot announced our impending landing.

At the airport we were met by a representative of Robin Pope Safaris—a big factor in visiting Majete was the opportunity to stay at their luxury lodge Mkulumadzi. We were driven the two hours from Blantyre to the reserve.  We traveled through the city of Blantyre, then up into the hills, finally over a hill into Chikwawa with a breathtaking view of the valley below with the Shire (pronounced Sheer-ray) River snaking through it; then down into the valley, across the Shire, through the provincial Chikwawa capital, and to the park entrance.

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The bridge to Mkulumadzi

From the reserve entrance to the lodge we spot kudu, waterbuck, impala, nyala, three elephants, several warthog and baboon.  Then we arrived.  Well, not really.  We arrived at a parking lot.  From there guests of the lodge cross a suspension bridge over the Mkulumadzi river.  Once over we jump into a jeep for a short two minute ride to the lodge.  This would become routine.  Lodge to jeep, two minute ride, cross suspension bridge, board safari jeep.  Return and do it all again in reverse.

At the lodge we are greeted curbside lodge management.  A short walk down a path to the main building of the lodge and we are received with cold washcloths.  C does not know what to do with it but I am grateful.  The south of Malawi is warmer and our transport vehicle had no A/C.  I was hot and sweaty.   The kitchen prepared our lunch.  We took a dip in the pool.  At 3 PM the lodge served tea and at 4 PM we headed out on a game drive.  C and I were the only guests the first day, which meant we had the game drive to ourselves.  That was a very good thing as game drives are long.  In Zambia, the four hour drives were not only long for C but also for me, especially the afternoon drives that went two hours after sunset.  For our first Majete drive we were out only 2 1/2 hours but added hippopotami, crocodile, vervet monkeys, and dung beetles pushing a ball of dung across the road.

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A friendly neighborhood bushbaby

Back at the lodge a bushbaby makes an appearance.  She is apparently a regular, showing up a few nights a week for some peanut butter.  I had never seen a bushbaby before, so this was a highlight.   We have dinner.  Afterwards it is 8 PM and time for bed.  The morning drives begin at 6 AM.  Because Malawi is so very, very dark at night, with so few lights.  Because we are staying in a reserve with even less light and our chalet is separate from the main building, and we are in a nature reserve with wild animals, we must be escorted at night.  Our guide has a flashlight but it barely penetrates the night, we can see only a few feet in front of us.  But it is enough light for me to see the scorpion cross our path.  Yikes!

Back in the chalet, the mosquito nets have been dropped around the bed and the tented wall lowered.  Our chalet is lovely.  It’s fancy and simple at the same time.  A large room with the bed placed at the center.  Sturdy walls on three sides, but the fourth is open to a deck that looks out to the Shire River.  From there we actually observe hippos in the river and hear their bellowing throughout the day and night.  We see both vervet monkey and baboons in the trees.  A family of warthogs walks by the deck.  In the bathroom the deep bathtub faces large windows; the shower too is open — though the only prying eyes that might see us are the animals.  There is no A/C but instead a cooling unit.  The whole vibe is relaxed and natural.

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A view of our chalet

Except at night.  It is all too natural and thus a little bit less relaxed.  Large beetles buzz around bumping into furniture.  Moths, some really quite large, fly around the room.  And spiders.  A daddy long legs sits by a basket in the room.  He does not bother me so much.  A two inch rain spider scurries across the floor towards me.  There was definitely screaming involved.  The spider makes no noise.  After he is dispatched I find an inch long black one watching and waiting high above the sink as I brush my teeth.  C and I can hardly wait to get inside the mosquito net and turn off the lights.

The following morning we are up early, but not too early.  We are still the only guests and thus the game drive departs when we want to depart.  We slept with the tent side down, but with only the netting and thus as soon as the sun rose the beautiful morning light filtered into the chalet as did the sounds of nature – the rushing of the rain-swollen river, the chatter of insects, lizards, monkeys and birds, and the honks and sighs of the hippos.  As I stood out on the chalet deck a rustling in the underbrush revealed a family of six warthogs passing by.

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C watches the warthog family from our deck

We headed out on the game drive at 7 AM instead of 6.  Maybe our late start was a factor, but we saw few animals.  The usual suspects – the impala, waterbuck, baboons, and warthogs – were out.  We also had the opportunity to briefly see some sable and two eland, the latter the largest antelope.  A massive male eland stood majestically in the middle of the road for a few long seconds before leaping into the brush, but I was not fast enough with my camera.  Later, we came across a male elephant taking a mud bath.  But C began to grow bored, demanding “new” animals.  I wondered about this – is my child so well traveled that she is already bored by safaris? “Ugh, it’s just and elephant, mom,” she says, accompanied by an eye roll.

Back at the lodge we enjoy our second breakfast and then retire to the chalet.  I read some while C plays with her toys.  I lie down for a nap.  C protests (she almost always seems affronted by the idea that mom might take a nap) but soon enough she is snoozing on the sofa.  It is hot and humid but the breeze and the tiredness that comes from keeping an eye out for animals on a long drive lull us to a delicious sleep.  We have a late lunch — its served when the guest wants anytime between noon and 2 — around 1:30.  We are dining when the much anticipated family with two kids arrive.  As soon as C had heard of their arrival the day before she had been eagerly looking forward to meeting them.  They did not disappoint.

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Shire river bend and lush rainy season foliage

A note here.  The lodge is really quite the get away.  It turned out they had no television, no wifi, no telephone signals.  I suspected there would be no television, but the lack of wifi was a bit of a surprise.  When our on game drives the adults are not only looking for the rare animals but with phones in hand are trying to catch the elusive wifi signal.  Here we were already the second day, with two and a half days still stretching ahead of us, and I wondered how we would survive.  Well I had brought my Kindle and my journal.  For C I had two books, presents from her grandparents she opened our first day, and she also brought her new Lion Guard set of characters.  Also, game driving can be tiring.  There was a pool.  And the lodge also had a number of board games, a few toys, and paper and colored pencils.  Still, I thought I might I have booked one day/night combo too many.

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Mom and baby impala

The family, two sisters with two children aged 4 and 9 (C is almost 6), joined us for the afternoon drive.  Again, a good combination as we could (and did) decide to head back a bit earlier as the kids flagged in energy and enthusiasm.  C was thrilled to have other children along.  We saw only one new animal, the bushbuck, but otherwise the same cast of characters: impala, nyala, waterbuck, warthogs, baboons, and hippos.  Though almost all of them had babies in tow as it is early summer.  Yet, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, I too was growing tired of not spotting new animals.  But the weather was good, the skies, blue, the air fresh, and we were in a national park in Africa.  Not too shabby.

Our third day, another game drive.  Another two minute ride in the jeep.  Another walk across the suspension bridge.  We drive for long intervals, sometimes for as much as 20 minutes, without seeing a single animal.  But we stop for a morning tea break at a viewpoint overlooking a bend in the Shire, the longest river in Malawi.  It’s 402 kilometers long from Lake Malawi until it flows into the Zambezi.  The greenery and blue tinged hills in the distance set off the brown fast flowing river gorged with rain; it’s beautiful.

It is Christmas Eve and we are slated for a river safari in the afternoon, but instead it pours rain heavily for hours.  We nap again and it is refreshing.  That day I do not mind.  But Christmas Day is the same: a game drive in the morning with few animals and an afternoon downpour that scuttles the planned river safari.  I have a harder time shaking it off on Christmas.  Though I am not used to Christmases with friends and family, we are away from home, disconnected, and I feel a sense of melancholy.  But the lodge puts together a lovely Christmas buffet lunch and includes small gifts for the kids.  C happily draws pictures and plays.  In late afternoon, as I return from fetching something from the chalet, the rains having finally moved on, I look up to see an incredibly beautiful late afternoon light in the sky and a rainbow.  I am restored.

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Elephants along the Shire

On our final morning we do manage at last to take the river safari.  The river is high and swift.  We see some fishing birds along the shore hunting, hippos lying low and dangerous in the water, and a family of elephants enjoying a gathering on the banks.  We see the Kapichira hydropower station.  It was here, at Kapichira Falls, where Dr. David Livingstone’s 1859 expedition halted, being unable to continue further up the Shire.  And now there is the hydropower station, which is significant for Malawi as the country generates at least 90% of its electricity from hydropower.

Back at the lodge we have lunch and then it is time to begin the two hour drive back to Blantyre and the flight to Lilongwe.  Despite the day before wanting desperately to be home, I feel now a little tug to stay.  It was a great getaway for C and I; I hope one she will remember well.

 

Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Seven: Final Days–A Buddha in Spectacles and a Golden Rock

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JJ and I took the bus to Pyay to break up our journey to Rangoon.   The bus was scheduled to arrive at 1 AM, but schedules in Burma mean nothing.  We arrived at 2:30 AM instead.  We were the only people to get out of the bus, i.e. the only people insane enough to arrive somewhere in Burma r at 2:30 AMWe were immediately set on like a pack of wolves by a group of late night trishaw drivers who wanted to compete for our business.

Although the trishaw drivers were plenty, the available rooms in town were not.  We were taken to guesthouse after guesthouse, but each one was full.  Though initially fun to speed around a never-before-visited Burmese town in a trishaw in the middle of the night, after an hour I began to lose some of my joie de vivre.  Two proprietresses sitting out front sadly informed us they too were full.  Then the two women talked amongst themselves and offered me a cot in in the lobby.  I took the cot and JJ headed back to the first guesthouse where there had been only one bed.  Around 7:30 AM one of the women woke me up and told me I could move to a room.  I groggily gathered my things, moved to the room, and fell back to sleep.  Unfortunately, not for long.  A local Buddhist group was doing a donation drive; their loudspeaker droned directly across the roundabout and from that time onwards I heard only the sounds of garbled pleas for money interspersed with scratchy Buddhist music.  It was awful.  I nearly lost my mind!  At 9 AM I got up with very little sleep to my credit.

At breakfast I met two other female travelers planning a share taxi tour of Pyay.  JJ arrived from his guesthouse and we all made plans to sightsee together.  We first went to see the Buddha with spectacles, reportedly the only of its kind.  At the site a guide told us this story:  Once upon a time there was a ruler of ancient Burma who had the gift of second sight.  He could tell the future and help people by doing this.  One day he lost his gift and did not know what to do.  Some monks meditated on his problem and told him the solution would be to donate a pair of spectacles to the local Buddha statue.  Thus, a huge pair of eyeglasses were fashioned for the Buddha. Once placed before the Buddha’s eyes, the king’s gift returned.  After some time, his wife had difficulty with her vision so an extra pair of spectacles were made and placed in the Buddha’s hand. Afterwards the queen’s eyesight too was restored.

We visited two more stupas, some of the oldest in Burma, but my lack of sleep adversely affected my interest.  Perhaps I was a wee bit “stupa-d” out.  There are only so many stupas one can see in a short span of time and retain one’s enthusiasm.  Afterwards, then suffering from a pounding headache, I had the taxi drop me near the hotel so I could walk back to the guesthouse while the others continued on to yet another stupaAlong the way saw numerous sidewalk plaques prescribing how people should behave in certain filial situations.  Here are two that even in my exhausted headache-y stupor I found amusing:

Duties of a Wife to Her Husband

  1. To perform her duties in perfect order
  2. To protect his possessions
  3. Not to be unfaithful
  4. To be hospitable to the people of the neighborhood
  5. To be industrious and not be lazy in discharging her duties

Duties of a Husband to His Wife

  1. By courtesy
  2. By handing over due authority to her
  3. By faithfulness
  4. By providing her with ornaments
  5. By not despising her
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Woman cigar roller in Bago

I was unable to sleep the rest of the day though as the madman and his megaphone continued.  At 10 PM I headed to the bus station.  Though JJ and I parted ways here in Pyay, our adventures in Mandalay, Bagan, and Pyay were only the beginning of a friendship.  My next destination would be Bago, but without a direct bus from Pyay I had to change buses in Rangoon.  Surprisingly, the bus not only left Pyay on time, but also arrived in Rangoon early.  Unfortunately, it was 3:30 in the morning.  The taxi drivers all tried to convince me that there were no buses to Bago I was surprised the bus left just about on time, and even more amazing is that it arrived EARLY in Yangon, at 3:30 am!  It was a challenge arriving at an unknown bus station in the middle of the night.  There were others around, but few women. The taxi drivers told me there were no buses to Bago.  I had to pee badly but the toilet was locked tight, so I had to sneak off to relieve myself in a dark alley.  And a ticket seller ripped me off for the price, pocketing the extra 200 kyat right in front of me as he and his friends laughed.  It was a long 2 ½ hours waiting for the bus.

I slept hugging my backpack, but still arrived tired in Bago.  After a nap, I hired Mani, a nice Indian trishaw driver with a cheerful disposition and good English.  He was very good because he kept me from paying the overpriced foreign tourist fee to the sights.  He took me to back entrances, told me the tricks, and I had a good time.  I visited two pagodas and a sleeping Buddha statue, and a cigar factory.  I liked the cigar factory best.  In a house along the main road is a family owned and operated cigar factory.  This was not the traditional Burmese cheroot cigar wrapped in green leaves, but an honest to goodness cigar.  The women were doing all the work.  In the front room men sat playing Playstation, talking, laughing, and smoking, while in the back room the women sat amongst the dried leaves and rolled the cigars, eight hours a day, seven days a week.  I chatted with them with Mani as my translator; they were very friendly and cheerful, despite the work.

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Mani and I

My plan had to continue on the next day but I was feeling worse.  Mani helped me get some medicine and given I had only a few weeks before recovered from the mumps, I made the decision to take a rest day.  From Bago I took the four-hour bus ride to Kyaiktiyo.  Kyaiktiyo is one of the three most holy Buddhist sites in Burma along with Shwedagon and Mahamuni in Mandalay.  The Kyaiktiyo stupa is small, only 24 feet high, but perched on top of a rock covered in gold leaf, balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff on a high hill.  It had only recently been opened to foreign tourists.

I met Chris, a Belgian-Filipino, at a restaurant in Kyaiktiyo town.  We had met two days before in Bago; he had snapped the picture of Mani and I.  We had lunch together and then made plans to head to the Golden Rock.  We waited a full 30 minutes for the truck to the stupa to fill.  The truck resembled a dump truck with benches in the back, but by the time it took off it was jammed full with some 50 people.  The drive was like a roller coaster.  The driver seemed to love fast driving.  We would fly over a small hill and then swoop down, and all of us in the back would be temporarily.  It was certainly a thrilling 30 minute ride.  By the time we reached the parking lot it was after 4 PM.  There was a 40-minute climb ahead of us.  We would have to haul ass up the hill, see the Golden Rock, snap a few pictures, then hightail it back down to meet the last truck back to town at 6 PM.

I had been feeling unwell since Bagan and the climb was steep.  My legs were okay, but I was sweating like a stuck pig, my mouth gaping open and closed like a fish out of water, and my heart was pounding.  Four palanquin carriers spotted me — I must have looked like their favorite victim.  They hurried over with their stretcher-like chair and began walking alongside me.  As I huffed and puffed my way up the road, one of them whispered to me “Ah, so hard, so very, very far.  $4” and pointed to the palanquin.  I managed to decline between gulps of air.  They walked in step with me.  After another twist in the road, they started again.  “Oh, long, long, long way.  Very hard.  You are very tired, $3.”  I was sure I was moments from collapse, but I was not going to give in.  No, I said and continued to trudge up the hill in slow motion.  After a few more turns they tried once more.  “Oh, you so tired.  So hard, so long way.  Much higher, much further, $2.”  I could not take it anymore, agreed, and threw myself on the palanquin.  As they lifted it up they proclaimed “Oh so heavy!”  I shot them a dirty look.    They carried me up a short way and complained that they needed to rest.  They stopped a few minutes later and asked me to buy them drinks.  I refused. They carried me 5-10 minutes more and told me it was the end of the line.  What?! I was just minutes from redemption, from making it on my own, and now I had to pay these clowns?  Then they tried to ask for $2 EACH.  I handed over 500 kyat (50 cents) to each carrier and walked away.

Fifteen minutes later we were at the rock and had a glorious view of green covered hills and the river beyond.  There is much more up there than just the golden rock–many smaller shrines, statues of Buddha, figures of Nats, and the like.  I wanted to touch the rock but unfortunately it turned out women are not allowed, and guards were posted at the staircase to the rock to keep women out.  This did not sit well with me.   

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As close as I could get to touching the Golden Rock

Once again transport became an issue – I find it somewhat incredible as I near the end of retelling my story from all these years ago how much the transport – the buses, boats (missed and taken), trishaws, palanquin, etcetera – are more central to this trip than the temples and historic buildings and other sites.  It really is more about the journey than the destination.  The return from the Golden Rock to Kyaiktiyo town involved trickery and a standoff.  We chanced staying at the top for sunset knowing the final truck back left at 6 PM.  In full sight of the waiting truck we grabbed a snack but it left without us and we then had to negotiate a return with whatever transport remained.  There was some hard bargaining and threats (to us, not to them) but we finally agreed on four FECs.  But it was not over as the drivers – because of course it was a group and not an individual – tried to get the money several times on the way back but we held our ground until they returned us to our guesthouses.  Exhausted I said farewell to Chris and went to sleep.  The next day a six-hour bus ride returned me to Rangoon, where I spent one more night at the Mahabadoola Guesthouse before returning to Singapore.

My seven-week journey to Northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma was at an end.  I had survived the mumps and a stomach bug, a two-day slow boat down the Mekong, and many, many long bus rides of varying quality.  Yes, it was very trying at times and difficult to be out of touch for so many weeks (at the time Burma had no Internet), but I saw some extraordinary places and met some interesting people.  All in all, it was an amazing adventure.  Looking back now, fifteen years later, I do wonder at the woman who took off on this journey.  After contracting the mumps, she did not throw in the towel but kept on traveling and she did the trip on her own.  She really had some chutzpah.

Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Six: Bicycles in Bagan

My cheap backpacker self liked the idea of an overnight bus because I could make some distance and save on accommodation.  Unfortunately, as my sojourn in Burma continued the quality of the buses declined as did the quality of my sleep.  I arrived in Bagan, one of Southeast Asia’s great historic cities, yet my primary motivation was to take a nap.  To fight my desire for sleep I went in search of a bicycle for rent.

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Balloons over Bagan

I rode off jerkily.  Oh, it was slow going.  It had been ages since I had been on a bicycle.  Old Burmese men smoking cigarettes cycled speedily past me.  Yet after just a few minutes I began to happily enjoy the ride.  Over a small crest the first of the Bagan temples came into sight and it was breathtaking.  I went down a side road toward the temple.  The day was lovely and the sun was high, and against the blue sky the hundreds of brick temples stood out in the dry yellow grass fields.  At the first temple I bought a painting for myself.  Most of the paintings were copies of carvings in the temples or other Buddhist texts, but the one I bought was in the artist’s words “from his own mind.”  Let’s just say, I liked the way he thought.

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Bagan Temple Painting

I met one of the Korean students from the cargo bus – he and his friends are students at a Pusan language university studying Burmese.  He invited me to join them riding and sightseeing.  We rode and visited a few temples together until my lack of sleep catching up with me.  I went into a tourist office to ask for some information, though the men had no idea how to answer my question, they invited me to sit down and have tea with them.  We talked for a while and then I began to ride back Nyang Oo, where I was staying.  The cooling breeze, the mid-afternoon sun and the lovely ride invigorated me so decided to ride down to the ferry point and find out about the ferry to Pyay.  Since I had missed the opportunity to take the boat from Mandalay, I thought I could then take the boat down river to Pyay.  I learned the boat left in two days’ time but the journey would take three days, which sounded rather long.  I would need to buy food, but also a blanket.  I was starting to feel a bit under the weather, and worried about the chill sleeping on the deck. Yet it was December 30 and my intel told me there were no buses south from Bagan until January 6.  I went home to sleep on it. 

I did not sleep well–and thus the decision was made, I would leave Bagan by bus.  The night had been cold and though I had a blanket and wore a lot of clothes, it was not enough.  I had a lie in then spent half the day exploring Bagan on bicycle.  Many of the temples in Bagan cannot be climbed for preservation efforts, but I could climb the largest.  Towards the east there is a lovely view of the river, and to the west a stunning view of the plains filled with other temples, large and small.  I sat there for some time.  I ran into JJ, my friend from Mandalay.  We sat and talked for a while, then watched three hot air balloons float over the ancient city of Bagan. 

dsc_0831It was New Year’s Eve.  JJ and I had dinner and watched a Burmese traditional marionette show.  The puppets are wonderfully crafted and the puppeteer incredibly manipulates the marionettes to appear lifelike.  After dinner and the show, I returned to guesthouse and went to sleep.  I figured it was midnight somewhere in the world. 

The following day I sat out on the bench in front of the hotel waiting for JJ.  I was writing in my journal and watching life go by on the street.  There was a race with most of the runners barefoot.  Then nuns came to collect alms.  I had seen a nun here and there in Burma, but not more than one or two at a time.  There are many, many monks, but not as many nuns.  This time there were perhaps 20 walking single file.  I thought of the differences I had seen between the young monks and young nuns.  The nuns wear pink or orange robes, and shave their heads, but I am told mostly orphan girls become nuns.  Monks on the other hand are not without families.  Families receive lots of merit if their son becomes a novice monk, even if he does it for just a month or two during the school holidays.  I saw monks receiving alms on many occasions and often it was hot, cooked food.  Yet the nuns were receiving uncooked rice.

I spent a day just relaxing with medicine and a book.  Then another day JJ and I arranged a share taxi with two Japanese to visit Mount Popa, about 90 minutes from Bagan.  Mount Popa is something akin to the Mount Olympus of Burma, the supposed home of the country’s nats, the Burmese animist spirits.  Mount Popa reminded me of the monasteries perched on huge limestone rocks in northern Greece.  From afar the temple on Mount Popa seemed inaccessible; the rock stands out from the plains.  To climb one has to remove their shoes and walk up 777 steps.  Once up there I found the temple to be a bit ordinary, not what I would expect of the abode of gods, but the view was quite nice.  It was terribly windy at the top and my ears turned red and my hair blew about me like mad.  I stayed up there only about 30 minutes, though it turned out I was the last of our group to descend.

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Young nuns asking for alms

On the last half day in Bagan, JJ and I hired a horse cart to take us to some of the less accessible ruins.  Off we went to see the ruins.  In my opinion these were the most impressive in Bagan. Maybe because there were fewer tourists and they were off the beaten track, but the carvings on the outside and paintings on the inside of these stupas were more intact than in the others I had seen. They were also on a slight hill which gave a fabulous view of all the temples large and small down to the river.  There was even part of what was a city wall intact along the road, which I had not expected at all.  The last temple we visited was quite large and unlike any of the others as it had been renovated and the grounds landscaped.  It also had a large gold stupa on the top.  It afforded wonderful views of the surrounding temples as well. 

There I am in one of the most historical and cultural sites of Burma and Southeast Asia.   Yet, have only vague memories of the temples and atmosphere.  I know I loved my time in Bagan; riding a bicycle down dusty, dirt pathways, seeing stupas rising out of the plain; hot air balloons picturesquely floating across the sky.  I spent a lot of time thinking, sometimes sitting among the temples, other times in the guesthouse or in restaurants.  But my diary focused on the upcoming new year; my email stories focused on the tedious, though often hilarious (in retrospect) hiccups of traveling – such as the struggles to get a decent shower, a decent night sleep, or to change money.

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Mount Popa

Before setting off on our final Bagan adventure, JJ wanted to exchange traveler’s checks. He was down to only enough money to pay the driver of our horse cart, but without money to pay his hotel bill. There is only one bank in Bagan.  We asked the driver to stop on the way to the ruins, but the driver informed us the bank was closed because of the holiday.  Therefore, after the ruins we planned to head to the city of New Bagan, in hopes they would have an open bank.  In New Bagan we tried first with the employees at an airline office, who offered us no help.  Then to a tourist information center, who reluctantly agree, but at 20% commission.  We found another exchange shop, but they too were closed.  A man at the shop next door said his brother-in-law might exchange the check.  The first man closed up his shop and joined us in the horse cart to direct the driver to his brother-in-law’s shop.  Ten minutes later we arrive and observe a negotiation in Burmese.  The end result though is that they will exchange with only a “small commission” of 25%.  Back at JJ’s guesthouse he tells the manager he cannot pay the bill because the bank is closed.  She says, of course it is open, but only until 2 PM.  The clock reads 1:45 PM (our bus to Pyay is to pick us up at 3 PM).   The manager tells JJ her friend will drive us to the bank– we drive like maniacs through the crowded streets, horn blowing, to the bank.  But it IS closed.  The driver parks anyway and honks the horn.  Turns out the bank manager lives in the house behind the bank.  He comes out and there is much discussion, but the manager refuses the change the traveler’s checks.  JJ is still without money.  But there is still a happy ending to the story.  A friend of JJ’s guesthouse manager is a long-distance taxi driver from Rangoon.  He agrees to loan JJ 75 FECs to pay his hotel bill and other expenses until he arrives in Rangoon.  The taxi driver hangs on to the unsigned traveler checks.  JJ will meet him in Rangoon, exchange the checks, and pay the man back. Only in Burma.