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.