Sunday, April 22, 2012

How To Be A Burmese Bongo Rockstar

Today is the first day of my last week in Chiang Mai, and once again, timing is perfect.  It's getting hot - very hot.  It's been super humid and in the upper 90's all week long.  I'm ready to quit that.  I'm more than incredibly grateful to have air conditioning in my dormitory, but the moment you step outside, the heat and humidity soak you.  The warm nights have turned into hot nights, and I have wear too much clothing to enjoy that.  So while I've loved Thailand, it's food, it's people, and it's sense of fun, I'm ready to head down under that equator.

Due to the incredibly hot nights, I haven't done much this week.  I studied a lot because we had two exams, but other than that, I stuck close to the air conditioning in my room.  Well, mostly.  Thursday night we went to dinner to celebrate another unit completion.  We had dinner in the city, did some impromptu karaoke because the singer that night struggled with English, and then went to a Muay Thai boxing match.  The boxing match was interesting, but not terribly impressive.  It was apparently more of a 'show' than a match, and you could tell there just wasn't a whole lot of heart involved.  While it was cool to see the style and methods behind everything, it became boring after a while, so we ended up playing Jenga and billiards for the rest of the night.

Friday night, I went to the market with Kozue and Eriko.  After some shopping, we decided to go to a restaurant called Dash! (exclamation point in the name).  The food was alright, and the owner was shamelessly hitting on us the whole time (kind of to the point of annoyance), but the dessert made it all worth while.  We had a fantastic cheesecake with mango sauce, and a carrot cake with passion fruit icing.  Oh, my goodness, it was amazing.  I think it has become one of my goals to master that icing.  It was one of the best things I've ever tasted, and I'm not a huge frosting fan.  While inhaling our dessert, the performer for the evening started playing "Home on the Range."  Never in my life did I think I'd enjoy hearing that song, but apparently, absence does make the heart grow fonder.  After the song was over, I thanked the musician and told him I'm from Kansas, where that's our state song.  Not sure if he knew what a 'state song' was or not, but he smiled, said "Kansas huh?" and proceeded to play "Dust in the Wind."  Thai people crack me up.

It was during this song that I spotted a set of bongos next to the table.  Feeling the desire to jam a bit, I started playing.  Though it took me a bit to find my bongo groove, by the end of the song we were sounding pretty good.  So good in fact, that the guy asked me to keep playing.  Thankfully, he only played songs I knew, and we synced up very easily.  I even sang harmony on a few.  The audience was eating it up, but I'm not sure if it was because we actually sounded good, or because they really got a kick out of watching a young white girl jam out with an old Thai guy.  Either way, their enthusiasm prompted us to joke about going on tour together (because who doesn't love a spectacle).  Who wouldn't want to come see this handsome duo?

After a few more songs, the girls started getting tired.  Everyone graciously opposed my leaving, but I was pretty tired myself, and I knew I had to be up by 5am the next morning.  So I bid my buddy adieu and headed home. 

The next morning, I headed to Myanmar (Burma) to do the visa run I mentioned before.  I woke up at 5, got to the bus station by 6, and had to wait until 9:30am to catch a bus to Mae Sai, Thailand (earlier buses were full).  I tried to make the most of the down time and the stations hot and smelly, but cheap internet cafe.  For 3 hours, I caught up on my episodes of 30 Rock (Big Bang Theory is the only show I've allowed myself to stream thus far).  Needless to say, the wait went by pretty quickly.

The bus to Mae Sai was was incredibly comfortable, and cold.  Luckily, I brought my jacket with me, because the AC was blasting for the full 5.5 hours.  I slept, listened to the last book of the Hunger Games, tried to snuggle with my freezing limbs, and enjoyed the snacks I purchased for the trip.  The only real hiccup was attempting to use the toilet while the bus sped down the very windy, very bouncy, mountain road.  Though sitting down wasn't difficult, trying to stand up, maintain balance, and pull up my pants at the same time became quite a feat.  Eventually, I did manage, with only minor injuries, and we reached Mae Sai at 2pm where I had to catch a taxi to reach the Burma border.

When we got there, I walked through one rather nice looking gate, got my passport stamped to exit Thailand, then walked to a second, more shoddy, gate and got my passport stamped to enter Myanmar.  (Even the difference between the two gates was rather telling.  Thailand is definitely doing much better than Burma).  I then took the next couple of hours to look around the shops of Myanmar, which, to put it lightly, is basically knock-off central (Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc all for $5-10).  If I had any concern or attachment to labels, bags, sunglasses, or wallets, this is the place to be.  But, since I don't, I mostly just walked around, got a deck of cards and some earrings as souvenirs, fended off more "I love yous" and marriage proposals than I cared to count, and headed back to the border.

I ran into several beggars heading back, and it woke me up to the current state of affairs in Burma.  There's an awful lot of stuff in that market, and a lot of money being made off of it.  But the people are still struggling, still hungry, and still suffering.  I guess when government is formed in fraud, supported by fraud, and economically fueled by fraud, it's hard to come by the social and political integrity required to make things better.  I can't say any of those I interacted with seemed miserable.  Most were actually quite pleasant, but you could see the need in their eyes.  I was so glad I had brought all of my travel snacks with me.

Haha, maybe I should explain that.  So, in Salt Lake City, there's a prolific amount of organized panhandling.  Giving money to beggars is therefore discouraged by the homeless shelters and city government.  I always felt awful ignoring them, because I knew some were genuinely in need, but I didn't know how to separate those really in need and those just taking advantage of others generosity.  And since I couldn't differentiate, I always had this internal moral struggle every time someone put out their hand.  "Am I just promoting panhandling?"  "Weren't you taught to take care of those less fortunate?"  "Are they going to use it to just buy drugs or booze?"  "I do have much, so I should give right?"  It was a bit of a mess.  

The solution I came up with was to offer food instead of money.  If someone is truly in need, food is the #1 priority, and I'm always more than happy to feed someone.  It was interesting to see how quickly you could separate those in need and those being contracted out to look like their in need.  Some would flat out tell me no, they only wanted money.  Some would accept the food, either graciously or begrudgingly, and at that point it was always pretty apparent when they really needed it. 

So anyway, while I was walking through the markets in Burma, every one who approached me to beg was incredibly receptive to the food I gave them.  In Salt Lake City, about 25% of those I offered food to would happily accept it.  In India, it was more like 75%.  So 100% to me says something about that country's state of affairs.  When I tried to give a bag of apricots to one older woman, she looked at me, confused, and gestured to ask if they were all for her.  I nodded, and seeing her beam with gratitude at something so minor broke my heart.  Those apricots cost me 20 Baht, which is equivalent of about 80 cents.  Perhaps it goes without saying, but we are truly blessed to live in the country and era that we do.  If nothing else, this trip has taught me that.

Where was I....oh yes....leaving Burma.  So I walked back across the border (which is apparently a river), got my re-entry for Thailand, and now I can legally stay until after I'm done with school.  Yay.  After getting my stamp, I bee-lined it back to the bus station and then caught the the next bus back to Chiang Mai.  From the bus station, I took a tuk tuk into the city because I had promised the girls from school I would go dancing with them that night.  I was incredibly hungry and VERY tired, but I do try to keep my promises.  So with the infinitesimal amount of energy I had left, I went dancing (till 1am), came home....and died....or at least pretty close.  All in all, a good week, but that was one very very long day. 

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