Saturday, December 11, 2010


Because blogspot has been unavailable to me, I’ve had a couple of extra days to reflect on my time in Burma these last weeks. My days there felt so full at the time, and in hindsight the whole trip now appears even richer to me. The richness was of the best kind, a generosity of good luck and wonderful encounters.

A few months ago an old friend who lives on the other side of the country sent me an email asking if she could join me for some of my travels in Burma. I enjoy her company and know that she’s wonderfully open and resilient too: I don’t have to take care of her or worry about her. But still, I ended up writing her a letter that said, I’m very sorry, but I think I need to travel by myself. I’m sure she felt hurt and rebuffed; I would have in her shoes.

But it was and is true, that travel is very different when I am travelling with another rather than on my own. With another there is company and conversation, a chance to talk over the day’s events and have ambitions and fresh ideas about plans for the following days. On my own there is loneliness and there are times of self doubt, or self-criticism, and of anxiety. But still the plusses outweight those minuses.

And the plusses of solo travel? The biggest one is my opennness to new people and chance encounters. There’s more room for the unexpected connection with a stranger when I travel alone. And it’s those encounters that enrich travel. The casual conversation with my Burmese seatmate on the overnight bus (a woman from northern Shan State), the monk and his cousin-brother who took me temple-hopping in Rangoon on an earlier trip, none of this would have happened if I’d been travelling with a friend, enclosed in the cocoon of familiar company.

Another, related plus of solo travel is that it leaves open more possibilities for serendipity, for unexpected events. Yes, they are often connected to the chance encounters, but not always. And I love the unplanned and unexpected. I don’t want to know what tomorrow will bring; I want to discover it as I go. For if I did only what I planned to do, or what I could imagine before the trip began, then my trip would be defined and shaped by my limited knowledge and imagination. But if I am open to the unexpected, then the sky’s the limit.

I was sitting in a large teashop in Rangoon the other day, drinking black coffee (in Burma it is served like black tea, sweetened with sugar and with a wedge of lime alongside) and eating “nan-piar” a tandoor-baked unleavened flatbread, when an older man came over and said hello. Japanese from Osaka, a retired busniessman, he has been teaching Japanese in Mandalay, at the YMCA, for three years. He wants to help broaden the minds and imagination of young Burmese, and he’s doing it, student by student. He’s an interesting guy whom I hope to meet up with again, open and optimistic, and also generous-minded.

A woman I stayed with in Pakokku ten days ago, a small town up the Irrawaddy River from Pagan, taught me some delish Kachin dishes, a real piece of luck. I also learned a lot of central Burmese food technique from her daughter and from her daughter-in-law, a brilliant natural cook. They made fish curry, frying the fish first, then putting it into the long-simmered sauce just before serving. The chicken curry was a new version to me, and so was the way they fried chicken (simmering it first in a little water, until the water evaporated, before frying it in oil). The salads they made, one of green mango and another of peanut paste, were spectacular.

But best of all was the chance, as a solo traveller, to become, if only for a few days, a part of an extended family. I watched in the morning as the daughter put thanaka powder on her ten-year old son’s face, and on another morning as he did his own before school, carefully smoothing it into his skin, then using a toothbrush to make sure his eyebrows were smooth and perfect. A granddaughter, a beautiful tall twenty-year old engineering student, was going to a wedding next day. What to wear? We sat around one evening as she tried on a couple of outfits (both were traditional: short-sleeved fitted top over a longyi, a full-length straight-wrapped sarong). We all agreed which one was best, though she didn’t seem convinced. Next day she got dressed in the less cheerful combo(greys and blacks, elegance but no warmth), but then suddenly at the last minute changed her mind and opted for the pink top etc that we had all preferred. I took a photo of her in the pink, looking shyly beautiful as she headed off to the wedding on a motorcycle.

Pakokku sees only a trickle of foreigners, so I was a curiosity. Several times I was taken by the arm, by an older woman, and led to a monastery or temple and shown around. Each time we’d be followed by a circus of kids, mostly boys, who gambolled and laughed and cartwheeled and showed off in the freshest and noisiest and happiest way. The monks we’d meet smiled at the kids or tuned them out. There was no scolding, no false reverance, instead a wonderful exuberance.

There are urgencies in Burma and pain and suffering, especially along the borders, but elsewhere too. And at the same time there is this potential in the young, an energy and imagination. Totalitarian states clamp down on that energy, but from the things I heard from NGO workers and from others living in Burma, there is action, movement forward, even so. The internet is a huge boon, a help in networking of all kinds. And now there are growing self-help networks, some focussing on education (English language, civil society, conflict resolution) or health care (improving both access and quality), others on environmental change and sustainable agriculture.

And with the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi there’s a perceptible feeling of relief in people, almost a lightness in the air as you walk along the street, especially in Rangoon...

PS I discovered that my problem with making a new posting lies with Safari. I tried opening "new post" with Firefox, and here I am. Apologies for the delay and my techno ignorance!

1 comment:


I echo your sentiments on travelling alone vs company. Both have their pros and cons; one tries to match the destination and needs with the style. Lovely post.