Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rangoon (in flux)

When I arrived in Yangon I was struck by the Indianness of it - or, more specifically, how Kolkata it was. I put this down to the obvious factors: both of these cities are ex British colonies, with buildings like that one pictured above (maybe an old school?). There is something deeply satisfying about seeing these strange, transplanted visions wrapped and overtaken by the land they are actually in. Plants growing out of the window, squatters making them into homes, cats skiving class in empty classrooms. 

Apart from this, in both Kolkata and Yangoon the vast majority of people wear local traditional dress, as opposed to the ubiquitous jeans and t-shirts of the rest of my known Asia. The stacks of newspapers. The frantic markets. The copious book stands (Myanmar had to apply for special exemption with international aid agencies; their literacy rate is so high it was diluting their poverty statistics and skewing their ranking on the development index).  

Most of Yangon is very busy; it is a city famous for it's traffic and hours spent in cars. Car horns, 9 minute long red lights and a huge pedestrian population. The streets are not peaceful, and the pictures in this post might give the wrong impression; an impression of emptiness. 

All the same, right beside the busiest highways and byways there is an area which was introduced to me as 'the secret garden.' If you want to sell something to me, calling it 'the secret garden' is a really great start - it is a story I grew up with and identify with perhaps too strongly. 

In Yangon, it constitutes a fenced off area filled with crumbling, usually empty buildings. I feel like this is a pretty 'full' blog post, but the truth is I have only touched on what is available; partly for reasons of editing and partly because some places deserve their own post, later on. 

Below: an old hotel. There were security guards. I asked them, in Burmese, "it's hot, isn't it?" and we had a very short (my Burmese/ their English) conversation, before I motioned that I'd like to wander about in the hotel they were guarding. They were taken aback, but I pointed at my camera, which is suitably imposing and gives the impression I might be here on some formal business (also a disadvantage depending on the context). In any case, the guards were quite easy to persuade and they even found me two bemused guides. 

According to my guides, this hotel was 'built' (not finished) 3 years ago by the Chinese/ the Army and is now being demolished/ finished. It is a mystery. 
Anyway, here is a nice empty room:

Even emptier: 

And, next door, a complete room:

Further down the path you pass a gang of feral dogs (harmless) and come to this. I call it "the Stable" and imagine it filled with ghost horses. 


Walking along this path you can hear the busy roads, only a few hundred metres away, backup up and furious. 

Remains of a cult meeting

In the evening, I sat on the roof of the Alfa Hotel and looked over the area I'd just explored. I stayed at this hotel for two weeks, where I could pretend I was a low-level business lady circa 1987. The rooftop bar is actually just a concrete area, but the staff are charming and the gin and tonics are correct. 

These kinds of views - hodgepodge architecture, temples and organic growth bursting forth - are what I'm doing with my life at the moment.  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Hermit Den

I'd never been anywhere in Indonesia and it's a painful waste of flights not to look around when you have to pass through an airport anyway. To get out of Timor, I had to stop in Denpasar, Bali and pay their never-ending series of fees. I'm an unrelenting snob sometimes, so I had always had a negative image of Bali in my mind - drunk Australians, tanning, 'cultural experiences.' I was dubious, but my Timor friends reassured me that I was, in fact, only thinking of infamous Kuta. They insisted that other areas of Bali, such as Ubud, are actually beautiful. And relaxed. And there are no foam parties. So, I rented this room for a paltry $25 and went to Ubud. 

I had my own little kitchen and a princess bed and a motorbike and stillness, so I fully embraced my quiet side and spent three days barely speaking to anyone. I motorbiked around, strolled the streets of Ubud and read my book (American Psycho). I cooked my own breakfast every morning in a ritualistic fashion and thus discovered the great joy of self-catering. 

Having your own kitchen is great because: 
1. I don't want to talk to people before I have my coffee, breakfast and internet time. 
2. The breakfast I can cook is more delicious and much cheaper than breakfasts in cafes. Eggplant, tomato and bokchoy scrambled eggs, made the way I want them. 

If I was a more talented writer I would have written this entire post in the style of Patrick Bateman. Here is my pitiful attempt: 

Ubud is a hip litle town, recently featured in Conde Nast traveller. I am wearing my Tropicana ultraflex lycra leggings, a buffalo skin backpack and driving a Honda motorbike. At the Bali Buddha cafe I order a vegan banana coconut smoothie with a shot of activated wheatgrass and a sprinkling of amethyst shavings. At the gym I am disgusted to note the age of the equipment (no Nautilus here!), but due to the presence of several hardbodies I persevere with my routine. I prefer the free weights, but also spend 20 minutes on the sub-standard cross trainer looking out of the countryside. People should keep in shape while on vacation, I think, as I flex at my reflection. A hardbody helps me with the sub-standard dumbbells and I smile benignly in thanks. 

Outside the gym

View from the gym
Ubud is famous for Eat, Pray, Love and all that implies. I haven't read the book, or seen the film, but sometimes I instinctively know that things are not for me. For one, I don't like mandatory optimism. For two, I saw a store in Ubud with a little sign that said 'Eat, Pray, Shop' - a very succinct summary of my issues with the kind of 'enlightenment' quite literally on sale in places like this. My Patrick Bateman piss-take isn't just because I happened to be reading it, but also because the kind of commodity-fetishism he espouses would be equally at home in most of the yoga circles/ health cafes around these parts. Just in a strangely opposite way. Like, if I told these kids I think the new Chanel collection is a bit disappointing, they would happily pigeon-hole me as a shallow, capitalist member of the sheeple. But if you want to have a 40 minute conversation about the merits of this yoga towel over another, sure. Or you believe your laissez-faire, fisherman-pants look proves the authenticity of your soul. Or if you think "you just have to go to India" is a perfectly legitimate piece of life advice, and doesn't speak to a vast world of privilege. 

"Exotic travel is the new lounge set" as my friend Benjamin used to say. 

In any case, my brief stopover in Ubud was a wonderful little time, despite myself. People, locals and tourists, seemed uniformly warm, relaxed and drenched in serotonin, the plants were bursting with life, the temperature was ideal and the decorations from the Galungan festival were still up on the side of the street, celebrating the the victory of the dharma over the adharma.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

On bailing: a lucky dip of reasons

I thought I would begin this somewhat-negative post with a picture of my favourite part of Dili - I don't have a good reason, but whenever I motorbiked through that particular arch-way (tree, flowering tree, palm trees) I would think Dili is so beautiful. I didn't always think Dili was beautiful, or a want to be there, so this was a note-worthy little spot. 

To be clear, I'm writing this in the past-tense. I quit Timor-Leste. I quit a lot of other things simultaneously, I had a big quitting spree. I quit my 20s. I quit certain bad habits (and, hopefully, picked up some good ones). I quit my job and I also quit adhering to a notion of myself no longer proper to the self I am today (as my nordic Rune stones would tell it).  

I wrote 'a letter to my 16 year old self' while in Dili, to nut out some of these issues between the person I once wanted to be and the person I actually am. Here is an excerpt: 

"I won’t say it’s a mistake, because in the end I’ll be glad I did it. I’m glad now. There’s a nice breeze blowing through my seaside house in Dili and I am truly glad. However. I also know that I am no longer interested in being tough. I am okay with being tender instead. I’m okay with vulnerability, and delicacy, and the desire for community.

I can see you screwing up your house, muttering ‘hippie’ under your breath.

Well, I guess the apple hasn’t fallen that far after all.

Here I am, writing to my past self about community. And dreaming of stability, and a herb garden, and a constant routine. So, now that I just turned 30, dear young Leilana I’d like to thank you for your boldness and audacity. We did some crazy shit. We went to some wild parties, some sparkling places. I’m not closing the door on that, entirely, but I have bought some blinds. Or something. Some useful metaphor to say: no, thank you, for now." 

I'm not in Timor-Leste anymore and even with only one day's distance, it can be hard to remember the whys or wherefores of past emotions. It can be hard to remember instinctive truths; I replace them, instead, with images, with snapshots of what was actually a full-time life. 

To try and grasp at the past I'm dipping into some of the journal writing I did, so if this post seems fragmented, it is - because it will move between the past and now (where I am about to swim in a pool over-looking rice fields) and because my time in Timor-Leste actually did feel a bit fragmented to me. My friend Q was on the same plane as me, leaving, and she said "this is a bit of a weird time for you, you're going to be like... 'once I lived in Timor-Leste for three months,' and it won't seem real."

I said, I know - that's why I bought a t-shirt.

One of many embassies on 'Beach Road.' This one: China

Next door to the embassy

"Living in such a small country, like extremely small (not to mention new, and poor, and a host of other adjectives) feels like living in a parody of the nation state. First of all, there are all of the Ministers. It feels, sometimes, like every third person is the Minister of Something or the Chief of This, the Director of That or the Special Rapporteur of Obscure Bureaucratic Processes. This has good comedy value, but it also feels mildly sinister; sometimes driving past the rows of lavish embassies, lined up, facing the sea (prime real estate for big, largely empty buildings with no windows, excellent) gives me chills." - 17 November, 2014. 

"My pitiful imagination failed entirely to conceive of Timor Leste. It’s funny now to look back and try to visualize what it was I was anticipating; someone even asked me “what were you hoping for?” I don’t know. Every other place I have lived I have loved more than I expected, especially places I had even some negative connotations about, like Colombia and Israel. Those places still make my heart heave. People tell me about how that happened to them with Timor, they say it like “oh, so typical, I came for three months and stayed four years! Happens to everyone here!” and I say “well, except I’m the opposite” and I feel like a postcard picture of negativity; a Debbie-downer on solo parade. They look out, usually directly at the glittering aquamarine waters, or the swaying palm trees, and back at me, with that why on their faces. Why not this?

To write honestly about negative experiences is hard; I feel like people desperately want other people to be positive (maybe especially their friends, but maybe just most people in general). People want me to tell them about how beautiful Timor-Leste is (and it is), how great ‘the people’ are (someone once wrote that ‘people’ are white and ‘the people’ are brown, genius), what madcap adventures I went on. All of those things are true and all of those things are obvious. Those things have also been true for every other place I have lived, so they feel bland, like commenting on how a meal has the right amount of salt.

I’ve travelled in places which are ‘difficult for women’ before. I lived in India for five months, famously a haven of harassment, and I spent time in Bogota, which recently ‘won’ most dangerous city for women on public transport (I certainly had men rub against me in the collectivo). But, I don’t know why, but it just feels worse here. It feels relentless. My ‘female’ being feels like a giant neon sign I carry around, and I feel like even when I’m not directly harassed, the looking and the thinking is so loud. That makes me sound like a real primadonna thoughtpolice over here, but I don’t quite know how else to describe the heavily charged atmosphere.

I don’t know any long-term ladies who haven’t been victims of some kind of grabbing/ molesting/ following ‘incident’ (we call them incidents here – I had an incident, she had an incident, everyone already knows what kind of thing it would entail and obviously it’s up to the person in question as to how much they want to tell). I had a child grab my ass while I was turning into an alley on my motorbike. A child. He grabbed me and yelled to his friends to see and made lewd sexual gestures. It was the strangest event, because here is someone who (one assumes) doesn’t yet have a sexual drive mimicking a learnt misogyny. It perfectly illustrates the fact harassment is violence, and isn’t driven by sexual desire (it isn’t men who can’t control their urges, it’s a masculinity defined by the disrespect and public humiliation of women).

In any case, this one factor seems like the easiest one to latch onto to describe my rapid departure, but – in truth – as an isolated issue I would learn to live with it, as women who love Timor-Leste have. The fact is that the little wire-tap into my heart isn’t here, and it’s like how you go on a date with a guy who is everything, on paper, that you want. He’s super smart, his job is amazing (way better than mine!), he’s funny, self-effacing and not bad looking. He’s a bit short, but really, that’s who you are now? He has your favourite tv series as a box-set. But for some reason, some mystical, stupid, frustrating reason, your heart won’t join the party. Your brain is there, with cocktails and streamers at the ready, but heart stays home. Heart shrugs, like guys like this just come along all the time (hey, guess what heart? They fucking don’t). Heart would prefer to spend the evening playing on facebook, or ‘working on my writing’ (what), so it all falters, it falls away and you try to be as jovial about it as possible. It’s obvious to everyone, but you try to soften it. It’s so beautiful here, I say, and I really, truly mean it. But I’m also not sad to go." 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Highest Mountain in a Small Country

My Opa was a mountain climber. My father is a mountain climber. But, despite the fact I'm just bursting at the seams to be one, I am definitively not a mountain climber. When I was younger my (estranged) father, who is a veritable encyclopedia of pseudo-science, told me that people's constitutions are either best suited to thin, dry mountain air or salty, thick ocean blasts. I am of the latter kind of people. I love mountains, so much, and many of my most treasured memories involve them, but my ability to climb them is hampered by my weak lungs, low fitness levels and lack of motivational drive.

Suffice to say, there are not many countries where I could say I have climbed the highest mountain or where such a thing would be physically possible/ wise for me; in my native New Zealand it would result in certain death. I could give Holland a go, or Western Samoa. Or: Timor-Leste.

My friend Eoin (pronounced: EEE OH IN), from Ireland by way of Hanoi, flew to Timor-Leste on the eve of my 30th birthday thus rescuing me from the utter worst of birthday horrors. I had decided to celebrate both his arrival and my descent into adulthood we would take a road trip to climb Mount Ramelau - the highest mountain of Timor-Leste, reaching to 2,986m at it's peak. During those rollicking colonial days it was also considered the highest mountain in Portugal. So, really, two birds, one stone type deal.

Being natural born idiots we left Dili far too late in the day and took our sweet time on the windy road. My flatmate and secretary-general on all things Timor told us we should bring some extra fuel, you know, in case. I made a face, since I don't enjoy taking part in such elaborate, fore-thinking activities, but I did pass on his good advice to Eoin, thinking he is probably a bit smarter than me in this regard. Eoin made the same face as me.

Motor-biking as far as the historic town of Maubisse was mostly scenic views and pretty good roads. We stopped at the Maubisse Pousada (pictured above, twice) and had high tea and a good meal overlooking the manicured gardens and surrounded by a ring of mountain tops. Despite the already late hour in the day, we decided to keep going and the manager of the pousada looked at us with a skeptical, but resigned, face. We did only one smart thing, which was to call ahead (this is out of character and I felt hopelessly grown-up).

From Maubisse the road rapidly deteriorates. After the turn off to the the village Hatubuiliko, it is not a 'road' in the sense that I have some to know the word, but rather a track made of large, bumpy stones. At the beginning of this 18km ordeal, the sun was beginning to set. Given our average speed, on the stones, of 5-10km/ hour, we both knew (but had the good sense and common decency not to voice) that we were in for a long, murderous evening.

About 7km in, by which time it was completely dark, I stopped for a moment, panting from wrangling my mechanical beast, my hands jangled from the bumps and coldness setting in. I hadn't mentioned any of these things, because: why bother? But Eoin, being the Patron Saint of Birthdays, says "I brought these gloves - they really help with the jarring, as well the cold." I stared at him blankly and nodded, thinking, yeah, smart thinking Eoin, but then he handed them to me and it was a kindness and generosity I will actually never in my lifetime forget. I feebly said "but what about you?" and he just pfft-ed like being cold and in pain was for wimps.

Within the next few kilometres Eoin pauses again and says "umm, I'm a bit worried ... I hope I have enough gas." He doesn't sound especially worried; his tone of voice betrays nothing except a minor inconvenience. I look over to see his fuel-gauge and see the needle hovering directly over empty: "oh!" I say in mock relief "the light isn't even on Eoin, don't be stupid, we'll be fine." I will myself to believe my own words.

The rest of the road we bump along mostly in silence, with occasional words of encouragement and a stop every 7km to pat ourselves on the back. At one point a dog snarls at me from the darkness and begins to chase me. At another, three men wrapped in blankets stand on a hill-top and shine torches down on us. At the worst moment, I pass and greet an old man who looks directly into my face and snarls "Malae" (foreigner). Apart from seeming like a bad cliché from some 'Heart of Darkness' trope, it was terrifying to think we were alone, in the dark, running low of gas, on a ridiculously dangerous road - and the locals (the one I'd met) did not like us.

Sunrise from Not the Top of Ramelau

Finally. Finally finally finally we arrive in Hatubuiliko and find the long-suffering hotel manager, who has been calling my phone every thirty minutes wondering where on earth we are (since no one in their right mind drives this road at night). We sit in a bleak, empty dining room drinking hot tea and shaking, from nerves, from cold, from pure, unadulterated relief. The next step is waking up at 3am to climb this damn mountain, but, at this point, that seems like the easy part.

It isn't the 'easy' part, but it is easier. We dutifully wake up at 3am and spend the good part of 45 minutes looking for and then waking our reluctant guide - a sulky, teenage boy. The walk up the mountain was hard for me, owing to my low fitness, but it wouldn't be too hard for most people and it wasn't as hard at the mountain I climbed in Sikkim last year. I was fed an orange at a crucial juncture and did, despite myself, make it to the top, where we ate treats and drank in the crumpled landscape.

Hatubuiliko village

The way back was a great deal easier because it was done in daylight and we had more time to do it. We stayed the night in Maubisse at a rather ramshackle (but lovely) eco-tourism project, where the food was exceptional, the beds were hard and the views were outrageous. The anxious manager told us that other locals nearby "might be funny," evidence of which you can see above.

There's a dip in the hills between Maubisse and Dili which goes through these rice fields and I've got to say, landscape wise, this is my favourite part. I've obviously spent too long in Vietnam (and Southeast Asia in general) because rice fields have become such a radiant and specific vision of beauty, while also giving me a kind of comfort. I was almost surprised to see them here, because the rest of the landscape is so arid. I wrote, years ago, when I was in New Zealand and missing stupid Vietnam (the first time I missed it) that I sometimes just miss that specific green - it's almost like a glow-in-the-dark green (especially after the rains). It's the kind of nonsense that makes me believe in colour therapy.