Browsing Category "Travel"
20 Feb
Posted in: Books, Travel
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Invisible Kingdoms

I brought my iPad with me on the trip, expecting mostly to use it for reading material on the plane, but I often turned to it during the trip, in the middle of the day, when it was too hot to be walking around outside. I would read little sections from Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, and every day I would get just a few paragraphs into the text and think…OMG, he’s writing about Burma! Here’s a sample:

From the high balustrade of the palace the Great Khan watches his empire grow. First the line of the boundaries had expanded to embrace conquered territories, but the regiments’ advance encountered half-deserted regions, scrubby villages of huts, marshes, where the rice refused to sprout, emaciated peoples, dried rivers, reeds. 

“My empire has grown too far toward the outside. It is time,” the Khan thought, “for it to grow within itself,” and he dreamed of pomegranate groves, the fruit so ripe it burst its skin, zebus browning on the spit and dripping fat, veins of metal surfacing in landslips with glistening nuggets.

Now many season of abundance have filled the granaries. The rivers in flood have borne forests of beams to support the bronze roofs of temples and palaces. Caravans of slaves have shifted mountains of serpentine marble across the continent. The Great Khan contemplates an empire covered with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind, crammed with wealth and traffic, overladen with ornaments and offices, complicated with mechanisms and hierarchies, swollen, tense, ponderous.

“The empire is being crushed by its own weight,” Kublai thinks, and in his dreams now cities light as kites appear, pierced cities like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves’ veins, cities lined like a hand’s palm, filigree cities to be seen through their opaque and fictitious thickness.

“I shall tell you what I dreamed last night,” he says to Marco. “In the midst of a flat and yellow land, dotted with meteorites and erratic boulders, I saw from a distance the spires of a city rise, slender pinnacles, made in such away that the moon in her journey can rut now on one, now on another, or sway from the cables of the cranes.”

And Polo says, “The city of your dream is Lalage. Its inhabitants arrange these invitations to rest in the night sky so that the moon would grant everything in the city the power to grow ad grow endlessly.”

“There is something you do not know,” the Khan adds. “The grateful moon has granted the city of Lalage a rarer privilege: to grow in lightness.”


The photos above are of Bagan, taken from the top of one of the 2,000+ temples and pagodas still remaining from the Kingdom of Pagan, where from the 11th to 13th centuries, more than 10,000 temples were built.

19 Feb
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Short and Sweet

For some reason I was having problems posting to Dharma Town earlier today, and now that the issue seems to have resolved itself, I’ve run out of time for a proper post. But no problem. I’ll just leave you with this….one of my favorite photos, taken in Bagan by fellow traveler, Jacob, who by the way is traveling around the word with his wife, Jessica, and who together are keeping a beautiful travel blog, called Radiant Zigzag Becoming, which you can view here.


18 Feb
Posted in: Travel
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Let’s Talk Toilets

One of the main things I was worried about before leaving for Burma was whether or not I’d have access to Western toilets. It was not until I first traveled abroad that I discovered…to my shock and horror….that not everyone in the world is in the habit of sitting on a toilet to, well, you know, “go to the toilet.”

I was in Italy when I encountered my first “squat” toilet, and I thought it was some kind of mistake. I went into the little stall and saw that there was nothing but a hole in the floor and turned around and came right back out. I thought someone had removed the toilet for some reason, maybe to repair it, or replace it or something. But my traveling companion explain that, no…the hole in the floor is where you “go.”


Luckily there were only a few toilets of that type in the places I went to in Italy (they called them “Turkish” toilets back then, as I recall), but I encountered them again in significant number when I went to visit a friend in China. I don’t have enough strength in my thighs, apparently, because I never could get the hang of them. How do you keep from falling over? How do you stay upright and still relaxed enough to do what you need to do? And what do you do if you’re a girl…and you’re wearing pants? I get that if you’re wearing a skirt you can just lift it up, but even then, what do you do with your underwear? I guess if you like to camp and are comfortable “going” in the woods, you’re used to that sort of thing. But I am definitely not a camper. Sometimes I had to completely undress from the waist down…but then I had nowhere to put my clothes!

So I was worried about going to Burma and having no choice but to use “non-Western” toilets.

But I was in luck! Every one of the hotels we stayed at and all but one or two of the restaurants we ate in had sit-down toilets. Even at the monastery, where accommodations were pretty basic, there was always at least one “Western” toilet.

The only problem, though, was toilet paper. I always carried a stash with me, because the system was definitely bring-your-own, but at the monastery there was a sign on the door of the stalls on my floor of the dorm that said not to put toilet paper into the toilet. OK. I’d seen that before when I’d traveled to parts of the world where the plumbing infrastructure was not all that robust. But in those cases, there was always a little trash can in the stall for you to put your “used” toilet paper in.

But there were no little trash cans in these stalls! And not anywhere else in the bathroom. There were no paper towels either, or anything else to dry your hands on. And if you had trash, you had to find someplace to stash it in your room, or you had to go outside to throw it away in the trash can at the front of the building.

There was no toilet paper and no little trash can in any of the stalls….just a plastic hose with a spray nozzle, which I understood was to be used to wash yourself off. Tempel had told us that the trick to cleaning yourself off without toilet paper was to soap up your hand really good before you got started…but then you had to have soap with you when you went into the stall. And I didn’t understand what you were supposed to do with the bar of soap while you were cleaning yourself off, because there was no place to put it except on the floor, which did not seem like a good idea. And then how do you dry yourself off? I tried the spray-and-drip-dry method for a couple of days…but it’s humid in Burma and the “dry” part of the plan didn’t quite work. I looked around and noticed that the “no toilet paper” sign wasn’t in all the bathrooms, so after an unpleasant day or two of walking around with damp underwear, I switched to the use-as-little-toilet-paper-as-possible plan. I finally got up the courage to ask one my traveling companions what she was doing about the toilet paper situation, and she was pretty much in the same boat.


So now I’m home. And let me just say that it is a joy and a pleasure…a luxury, in fact, which is not to be taken lightly…to live in a place where pretty much whenever you need to “go,” you can do it sitting down. AND, you can be confident that you will have easy access to an abundance supply of readily available toilet paper!

17 Feb
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Things to Do at a Pagoda

I managed to go to the Shwedagon Pagoda several times during the trip…in the morning before sunrise when it was the quietest and most reverential, in the early evening when it was filled with families and groups and felt very social almost party-like, and after sunset when all the lights came on and everything turned dramatic, like a theatre set.

Here are some pictures of me doing the “bathing the Buddha” ritual I did one late afternoon, which involved going to the particular Buddha that represented the day of the week on which you were born (for me, Saturday), then pouring water over him from the fountain in front of him..and also onto the guarding deity that stands behind him and his companion animal (in this case, a serpent/dragon).

I’m pretty sure this is not something suggested in the suttas. It’s an astrology practice that probably came from the Hindu tradition. But it was fun, so what the heck.









I think you’re also supposed to make a wish, or say a prayer, or something…but I was just enjoying being part of the festivities.









Can’t forget to wash the Buddha’s serpent/dragon!










I think my favorite time at the Pagoda was the second-to-last night when we all went together as a group. We sat together in one of the smaller, more out-of-way pavilions, right next to a little chapel-like structure where it turned out there was chanting going on the whole time we sat. I did “listening” meditation and heard the chanting, which was repetitive and incomprehensible (to me), but very soothing, and then the click of a camera quite close by (someone was taking pictures of us!), then loud coughing/hacking and spitting, people talking, some laughter, birds screeching, a gong being rung, someone sweeping…it was a river of sound and it flowed all around us…pleasant/unpleasant…on-going, ever-changing, effecting us and being effected by us…rinsing and falling and ending (for us) only when we stopped listening to it.

Then we did walking meditation — I chose a path back and forth between two small shrines with burnt candles and the remnants of incense. Then we went to another small pavilion–this one packed full of Buddhas of all sizes–and we did a little closing circle check-in.

Then, when we started taking pictures of each other, an old monk…who had been sweeping leaves from the floor in front of the pavilion with a bent twig broom…started talking to us (in perfect English) about our practice! I think he was impressed…or maybe a group of Western practitioners all decked out in our practitioner sashes and monastery outfits (brown wrap-around “skirts” and a white shirt, which is required wearing at most of the meditation centers.)

And then he offered to take our picture for us!

Here’s the picture he took.







Here’s one we took with him too!

14 Feb
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Not to be Missed

I mentioned yesterday that one of the great things about the Rainbow Hotel was that it was within walking distance of the Shwedagon Pagoda. As you may recall, I arrived in Yangon two days later than the rest of our group because my flight out of St. Louis had been canceled because of a big snowstorm. So I arrived at the hotel, alone, at about 11:00 at night…totally jet-lageed and disoriented…and then was told by the clerk at the front desk that they had no record of my reservation and that there was no rooms available that night.


But it worked out because I kept saying that I was with Tempel Smith’s group…the language barrier was a bit difficult, but they showed me a xerox of his passport and I said “Yes!” and then they called his room and then there was some confused back-and -forth over the phone, but after a while they did manage to find me a room for the night. I had to switch to a different room the next night–the room I wrote about on yesterday’s post, which was much nicer than the room I was in the first night.

I managed to get up in time to meet everyone at breakfast, but they had all had several days to get oriented so the plan for was for them to take a bus about an hour away to visit U Tejaniya at the Shwe Oo Min monastery, and for me to hang around the hotel and relax. This was an excelled plan, since the next morning we were all scheduled to catch an early morning flight to Bagan.

But that meant that I wouldn’t get a chance to see Yangon until we came back on the last day of our 2 weeks with Tempel. I was really tired and thought that it was all I would be able to do to get to the lobby the next morning at 4am to get to the airport, but everyone said that I really needed to go see the Shwedagon Pagoda.

I was nervous, actually, about going away from the hotel without Tempel, but just before sunset, Leahe took me by the hand and very compassionately walked me the 5 or 6 blocks to the Pagoda.

And wow, was it worth it. Not only was it gorgeous (see photo above) but there was such a powerful, sacred atmosphere of reverence, respect and both private and public devotion, mixed with a social, celebratory, almost festival feeling of community participation and a shared sense of deep spiritual wealth and abundance that’s hard to put into words.

These pictures will have to try to tell the story. More on Monday.






13 Feb
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Dreaming in Yangon

OK. So now for a posting that’s a little more personal. Bottom line: I really loved the trip to Burma…and I was really glad to come home. One of the things I loved was sleeping under a mosquito net…especially since at the beginning of the trip there were hardly any mosquitos…and especially when the netting was as pretty as it was in this sweet little room at the Rainbow Hotel in Yangon.

The bathroom, however, was considerable less romantic. Clean. But dingy. No hot water in the sink, mildew on the shower curtain, decades of successive layers of less-than-expertly-applied caulking around the tiles, and, well…just generally funky. BUT…it had a Western-style sit-down toilet. AND toilet paper!!!!

This was by far the nicest room…and, overall, the nicest hotel….I stayed in during the entire trip. ($45 per night for a single including breakfast. Not all the rooms were as nice as this one, but still I recommend the hotel — as long as you’re not too squeamish about the bathroom experience.)

Here’s what it looks like from the outside. Apparently it was originally two luxurious homes (maybe from the Colonial period?) that were combined — somewhat confusingly, I’m afraid — to make a hotel. A Korean woman now owns it, and the breakfasts were wonderful, Korean-style buffets (you just had to be in the mood for hot and spicy!) She was lovely and everyone on staff was friendly, happy, helpful and just as sweet as they could possibly be. (And they all spoke at least some English.)

Best of all, the hotel is walking distance to the Shwedagon Pagoda. More on that tomorrow.



12 Feb
Posted in: Travel
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So Much Gold

More photos from Burma, which was once called the Land of Gold. Guess why:

11 Feb
Posted in: Travel
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So Many Buddhas

I’m not quite ready to put my trip into words, but while I’m gather my thoughts, I will leave you with some of my favorite Burmese Buddhas:

10 Feb
Posted in: Travel
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Back from Burma

I’m back from my month-long trip to Burma, but haven’t quite gotten back into local time and weather, so for today I’ll just post this photo, which I took during one of the highlights of the trip…following the monks as they went on their pre-dawn alms rounds.

8 Jan
Posted in: Books, Travel
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Traveling Until Feb 6

Assuming there are no new travel delays, I leave tomorrow morning for a month in Burma and won’t be back until February 6. (It will probably be a few days after that before I’m un-jetlagged and ready to start posting again.)

In my absence, I leave you with this selection from my favorite pre-travel reading: Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino.

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. 

In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.

There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the dispatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies’ protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell.

It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heir of their long undoing.

Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.