Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thresholds exceeded in Burma

Ainaz is back in Bangkok, Thailand - after 3 weeks in Burma

It is not possible to enter Burma by land for travel right now .. so we had to fly in and out to make this visit.
Boxing our bikes at the airport at 8am after a 2hr suicidal ride on busy freeway to the Don Muang airport in Bangkok.
No hope to find a bike box in Yangon... so I built a box from 4 normal boxes for the flight back :)

I finally know why I haven't been writing as much lately. I can't find words in my language to describe my experiences, that's why. I can write the daily events, of the amazing encounters, of the beautiful landscapes, of the risks, of the adventures... but what I really want to share is on another level. What's happening to me that I sooo want to be able to describe to you is deeper.

Burma.. was about reaching beyond physical, emotional, spiritual and mental boundaries. 

A month ago, I was feeling tired.. I thought I would come back to Thailand and take a rest for a few weeks and then see what's next. But when the opportunity came up to go to Burma with other cyclists I had met on the road, I knew I had to go. Burma is changing very very quickly, I really wanted to see it this trip because I don't know when I will be back in this region again. Bali, Singapore and Malaysia will likely be more or less the same next time ;) but not Burma.

Arriving in Burma, it was like stepping back in time. The simplest infrastructures. A developing country to an extent I had not experienced before.
In most of Burma you only eat what you can grow in your backyard.

When did we forget how to carry things on our head?

Most villages are using well water.. there is no plumbing. All washing is done with bowlfuls of water from barrels of stored water or at rivers and streams if your village is lucky to be situated along one.
Can you imagine having to carry water or at best pump water for every toilet flush, for every dish you wash? Can you imagine not knowing what it's like to have clean drinkable water running from piped taps at your disposal 24/7?
I showered like this every day in Burma... but only on one occasion it was with the pigs!

Dry river. Burma was very dry during our visit. I can't imagine how people manage.

Electricity is mostly generator run.. some small villages in the mountains were microhydro powered.. you also see lots of solar PV panels :) Electricity is shut off during daylight hours and blackouts are normal and frequent throughout the night.
Imagine your life without access to power all throughout the day.. what would you do with the time you spend at the computer or watching TV? a good little game to play next weekend for a day, no? ;)
In Bumra they don't need a little sticker to remind them to turn off the light when they leave the room.. because they value differently this commodity when they have to bike the little car battery to get it charged by the central generator every time it runs dry. Despite this.. not even once were we rejected at our requests to charge our cameras, ipods, etc.

I don't have a picture of the power distribution technologies of Burma.. so here is a picture of a typical store in a small village. No matter how remote, you can find plenty of alcohol and cigarettes in every store! What a shame.
Without exception all roads I rode on in Burma were under construction. There is almost no machinery involved. Men and women are collecting rocks in small baskets, carrying it on their head to the road and leveling it out on the surface by hand, ....
Women sorting rocks.

Almost every day we would have sections like this we had to walk.

90% of the time we were riding on unpaved roads, some in really poor condition... sandy, rocky, steep grades. Some days we only covered 30kms the roads were so tough.
Welcome to Burma. This road was marked on our map as secondary highway in good condition.
NW of Mandalay, it took us 3 days to ride a 100km stretch. Jean-Baptiste (JB) and Arnaud who have ridden 20,000km so far through all of Europe, the 'stan's, China and all the way here said they had never seen roads so bad.
I pushed my bike a lot in Burma! Note how deep the sand is by my tire mark.
We crossed many wooden bridges in Burma. Some had seen better days!

When we were lucky, at least we were riding through beautiful big leaved forests like this.

During this stretch, I really got to practice that when the roads are sandy, you gotta keep your momentum up, focus on your goal, and let the flow of the sand guide you.... until you fall, then you gotta push your bike :) I grinned at how true this is in life... It's all about stopping trying to control but not losing track of your purpose, isn't it? 
You learn about life through exposing yourself to the elements of nature. Because we are nature. The more we observe it the more we learn about ourselves, the more we become aligned with how to "naturally" live out our purpose.

If you remember, my bike has also been having some major problems since Laos and it became unridable for a bit through Vietnam. I got some help from the Bok Bok Bike shop in Bangkok to bring it to a state I felt comfortable to manage with. But I decided to not pour a bunch of money into her for changing components at this point. 
Well, considering the conditions of the roads we were on, bumping downhill on super rocky roads.. I was waiting for my bike to explode every bump. But I had to trust, that my bike will hold up and just focus on riding strong. It was like riding a horse! If you are confident, the horse will take you.. but if you lose trust even for a moment the horse will kick you off the saddle.
On these roads I learned that I am way stronger a rider than I thought. It was like mountain biking with a loaded bike, up and down steep grades, with many surprises along the way! I didn't know I had it in me to ride roads like that and I didn't know my bike had enough strength left to do roads like that.. well we both kicked butt. When you have to, if you trust yourself, you have it in you to do anything.

Burma is just opening up more and more to tourism. There are several states still closed to foreigners. Camping is illegal and locals are not allowed to host foreigners without permission from the immigration police. Traveling with crazy French cyclists, of course we were breaking most of these rules! Despite the police's best efforts to keep a close eye on us unusual tourists, we camped every night that we wanted to, and were never stopped from going anywhere.
On our second day what we thought was locals taking photos of us was quickly realized to be the immigration police documenting our whereabouts! 
We were followed/escorted by the police most days and our passports were checked at least once every day. The record day was W of Kalay Myo with three passport checks on the same day.
One night we were found at our campsite by the police (and they never come in small numbers, 8 men showed up to our camp.. two police officers, a local teacher who spoke english, and the rest were entourage). They asked for our papers and then insisted we have to go back to the town 5k behind to take a hotel or guest house. They used reasoning like there might be a forest fire, or there are wild animals to beware of (we were camping behind a school.. there wasn't enough brush for a fire and we were more likely to step on a cobra if we tried to pack up and leave our camp than if we stayed put where we were). We used almost as ridiculous a reasoning back saying one of our bikes is broken and that it's unsafe for us to ride at night. Then the discussion reached a more mature level when they explained their concern is our safety and we explained that after many months of travel we are well practiced in camping and we take full responsibility for our own safety; we feel we have chosen a good place to rest for the night and if they can make an exception this one time and let us camp we would much appreciate it. They accepted and then 2 hours later we heard several men crawl into the bushes to camp with us through the night! It was the police.. making sure we are safe!!!
The only shot I was able to sneak in of our Police escorts. They always travelled in two, and the one in the back was usually drunk!! We saw them sipping out of their pocket micky every stop and once the drunk one tried to help me fix a flat tire!!

Unfortunately there is a big divide in Burma between rules and prices for locals vs for foreigners. The authority in this country is not sure how to be with tourists yet... specially with traveller type of tourists like us. After a few ridiculous encounters with the immigration police, I learned how to put myself in their shoes and speak to them from where they are at.. and then I found them to be reasonable human beings.

What stood out highest for me in Burma was the people. They are the most generous most beautiful people I have ever encountered. They shared all that they had (however little or much it was) for the value of connecting. Every stop we made, there were dozens of children, men and women gathered to find out who we are and what we know.. what we thought of the rest of their country (because most of them all they know is their village only) and where will we go next. 
An example...

Also, every stop.. some woman would pull me in to put on face make up on me. This is a paste from grounded branches of a bush. It is used as make up and doubles as sun screen also! Its called Tannaka.

To our pleasant surprise, many people spoke at least a little bit of English, and we met quite a few people who spoke excellent English. This was usually either because of their studies of theology with the church or remnants of the British colonization.
From these wonderful individuals whom I had the pleasure of encountering I learned the strength of a genuine smile... I learned to brush off life's hard moments more quickly because it's not worth ruining the chance for good times by carrying the weight of the hard times... I learned to give without expectation... I learned the value of knowing my rights... I learned to stand my ground... I learned the value of language and power of communication... and much much more.

The lovely encounters began right from the start at the airport - this guy helped me put my bike together.

Thank you the girl at the restaurant we stopped at on our second day for the way you grabbed my hand and took me to the kitchen when I told you I'm ta ta lut (vegatarian). For being the only person in all of SE Asia who knew that the broth from meat makes the soup not vegetarian :)

Thank you WinTun who didn't charge me at the internet cafe in Shwebo because you didn't have enough change to give back to me.

Thank you head woman at the Wat (temple) we stayed at the second night for standing by me the whole evening and morning and for introducing me to your culture. My first tannaka (face makeup).
The community at Wat Di welcomed us without any questions and without asking for anything in return.

This night I taught JB how to sew [flags of countries he has biked through together]. And everyone was entertained!
Thank you girl at Wat Di for pumping water for me to shower. You could be a super model. The image of your beautiful rhythmic posture when you pumped water will stay in my mind forever. (She is the second person from the left in the back ground of the first picture if you want to meet her.. standing next to the woman with the baby)

Thank you family who hosted us near Ye-u. I am sincerely sorry that you brought us in with the hope that the white man could solve all your problems not realizing budget traveller cycle-tourists are not rich in the pocket, only in compassion.
Mr U Khin Maung OO and family and the neighbors!
Thank you the drivers who gave Ben and I lifts when we couldn't bare all the challenges of the road.
Ben opting for a dusty car-ride over a slow painful slippery ride through sandy roads in the heat.

Thank you generous people of little village before Pyingaing for helping fix Ben's bike, for the free cookies and for the Taffe (traditional Burmese breakfast).
How do you open your rear cassette without a cassette tool? Ask any random Burmese guy, they'll figure out a way.

Aye Thandar Aung is a very bright girl and her brother Aung Kyaw Myo is a good mechanic and a good student at the Shwebo university. Their family runs a call centre out of their home for their village.
Thank you guy in small village E of Kalewa for greasing up our chains and for giving us mandarins (we hadn't seen fruit for 3 days at this point).

Thank you Chiang family in Kalay Myo for not charging us for lunch.
Jenny Chiang is standing beside me. She is of Chinese descent, her husband is from the Chin State of Burma. These are her children and grand children amongst us. Arnaud is the only one looking at my Camera :) hehe
Thank you Mang No (owner of Cherry Restaurant in Bamboo village in Chin State) for hosting us at your restaurant for the night. [Ben I still can't believe you took two blankets while I shivered all night!]
From L to R: truly yours, Phillip (crazy German cyclist), Mang No (our gracious host), Ben (crazy French traveller who joined JB and Arnaud by bike in Laos), JB and Arnaud (crazy French World Bike Trippers)

The beautiful kitchen of Cherry Restaurant
Cozying up at the Cherry Restaurant at 1600m high.
Thank you to the lovely children and people of the village on Manipur river for keeping Ben and I entertained as we waited for a hitch up the hill for 6hrs. Thank you for the free rice. Thank you for letting us use your phone. Thank you for translating our request to the drivers of the cars that finally took us up the hill!
Two girls treated me to a 4hand massage, while another tried on my sun glasses.
Thank you lady with your kid strapped to your back for the sticky rice (just past Hakha). I will not forget the wrinkles by your eyes when you smiled.
The kids in the background were rolling tires with a stick on the road as entertainment before this :)
Thank you locals of village between Hakha and Zou khwa for inviting us into your Centenary Hall for Easter lunch. 

Thank you Nuavan village for inviting us for yet another Easter meal and for letting me use your kitchen to cook us eggs (the day before all we ate was rice, and sticky rice). Thank you for the tomatoes and for the cokes and sprites!
We were only the 3rd tourists to go through this village and the first to sit with them for a meal.
Chef 'Naz in action ;)

Thank you Nuavan young boy (nickname Paul) for the flowers.
Paul asked me if I like flowers, then disappeared for 15 minutes and came back with these roses!! :)
Thank you Gangaw to Pakokku bus drivers for a safe journey through the most unreal bus-ride of my life and for the coffee at our 3am rest stop!

Thank you awesome girls and boy of Myanaung Boo-da (train station) restaurant for becoming my friends and staying up with me all night until my train ride at 4am. Your presence amongst the 27 observers gave me strength through the police "interrogation" and your company made this night the most memorable of my trip to Burma. I really hope we meet again.
The police was trying to convince me that it is unsafe for me to stay with these lovely people for the night!!!!
Thank you mystery man for walking away.. for not taking anything from me or my bike.

Thank you Brenda for taming me (ref. The Little Prince). It was wonderful to hang out with a good friend in Yangon on my last day in Burma.
Brenda and I were so annoyed at the $5 fee exclusive to foreigners to visit Wat Shwadagon.. so we spent the whole evening there to get our money's worth :) We ate strawberries, shared life stories, talked to locals, and used the free wifi until the temple closed at 10pm.

...here is a little more story telling about exceeding thresholds.

Riding up the hill, about 25km W of Kalay Myo, I had a Forest Gump moment. I stopped and saw no means or reason to move anymore. I was done with my SE Asia bike trip. It was time to stop and rest. 
All my friends were ahead. I saw my options as hitchhiking up the road just to tell my friends I was stopping, or sending a note with a driver up to them and riding back downhill to Kalay Myo right then. 
I waited on the side of the road. No cars came. I wrote a note explaining to my French friends about my stopping. I looked up, and there was a car. I took the ride up to the next town passing through some really poor conditions on the road. There were two road slides on this road that same day. 
So considering what was behind me and not knowing what was ahead, I decided the best thing to do is to stay with friends.. at least this way we figure it out together. 
I had never felt this level of fatigue in my life before. I took it easy over the coming days, walking many of the hills.

The French trio and the German cyclist we picked up along the way were all interested to stay in Burma as long as possible, even past their visa expiry. But I felt I need to cut my stay short and usually 2-3 weeks in a country is enough for me anyway. So in Hakha I bought my return flight ticket for April 9th (for cheaper flights before the Buddhist new year). And on April  4th I decided to separate from the guys to fast track to Yangon (actually, I had to flip a coin to make this decision!).
I continued to camp on my own .. it was only for two nights after all. On the second night of camping alone, I was riding through the delta wetlands W of Yangon, and through many many small poor villages. I would have preferred to stay at a temple this night, but I didn't see any pleasant looking temples along the way. I lingered around the last bigger village of my day to see if anyone will invite me to stay with them, but I didn't meet any welcoming people. So I kept riding through wet lands right up to dusk and finally there was a tall grassed stretch along the road where the ditch was dry and the nearby fields had some trees to hide behind. I quickly rolled into the ditch to head towards the trees in the far fields; but I saw some farmers were still on the fields. The edges of the ditch was covered with tall grass so I changed my plan and decided to hide my bike and my tent in the grass in the ditch for the night. There was a small clearing.. I laid my bike there. And I flattened a patch of grass right next to it for my tent. And through all this, trying to be as quick as possible to not be seen by the farmers.
I usually sleep in my 'aaron chang' short-shorts which I bought for my first date with Robin 9 years ago and the light little pink top my mom got me on her friends reunion in California. This night, I put on on top of them my long cotton pants and long sleeve cotton shirt that I bought in Cambodia... just in case I have picked the wrong campsite and someone comes by to find out what I'm doing here and I have to get out of my tent to talk to them.
But all farmers went home without anyone bothering me, night sky fell, and I went into a deep sleep.
I woke up at 12:30am boiling hot. Decided to take the short-shorts off and sleep in my cotton pants. I take off both pants and right this moment I see a flash light flashing in the ditch near my tent. OH SH*****T! no time to put pants back on, I quickly go under my fleece blanket to cover myself up and pretend to be sleeping and cover my face to not expose that I'm a girl. But the person comes by, flashes his light into my tent and decides they will try to wake me up. He kicks my tent and I stay still. Talks in the local tongue in a tone I Do Not like and I stay still. He grabbed my toe and pulled at my blanket through my tent and this is when I yelled "TOMEH" (go away in Burmese). A little pause but he persists. He keeps shining his light into my tent. I have my face covered so I cannot see exactly how close to my tent he is standing. I see the light pass over the tip of my knee that was exposed. I hope hope hope that the fleece is covering my backside completely. I slowly move my hands and secure the blanket around me. I hear a stroking sound outside that I could only interpret as him getting ready to take advantage of me. I have my pathetically dull pocket knife in my hand, and I am ready to defend myself. Inside me I'm screaming "oh my god on the last night of the ride this is happening.. safe all throughout Asia on my own and one last bad choice of a camp spot and it's going to happen!!!" But at the same time I felt everything was going to be ok. I had no idea how this would play out, but I knew I would come out of it ok.
Christer, my friend in Bangkok had told me of a book, "Bangkok 8".. and that in it the prostitution is analyzed in an interesting way. That on a spiritual level, the Thai women are selling their body, but not their soul. Somehow this memory helped me in this moment. I felt determined that even if this man tries to take my body he will not touch my soul. I was ready for anything.
The man outside my tent continued to talk in his local tongue, saying the same few sentences over and over.
I was listening to the sounds of the street, wondering if there is a person passing by, if they would hear me if I screamed.
Slowly moving under my cover I was able to put on one leg of my pants, but the other one would be too difficult, I would expose myself. Meanwhile, inside, I'm asking myself, would I kill for self defense? At that moment my answer was yes.
At the same time, there was another string of thoughts and emotions. A really really deeep wish for him to walk away. A really really deeep wish for this to pass. My mantra became, "let this pass, let this pass, let this pass" and, "walk away, go home to your family, walk away"........ there was also a [now in retrospect somewhat ridiculous] moment of wishing for something external to happen to him to give me a chance to escape.. I had heard rats or snakes or something rolling around under my tent earlier.. I was wishing for him to get bitten by a snake for example!!
He pulled at my toe one more time, and I yelled at him continuously... "go away.. get the f*ck away.. tomeh.. goooo away..." ....and he walked away!!!!!
As I saw his flash light's attention roll away from my tent back into the ditch, I came out from under my cover and watched him walk away with a bamboo stick balancing load of the two sacks hanging from the edges over his shoulder and he walked into the fields. WHEWWWW!
I quickly put my pants on; my hands shaking quickly undid the shoe string that was securing the zippers of my tent's mesh "door" shut and grabbed my shoes from outside; closed the solid fabric "door", closed the mesh "door" again, put the shoe string back through and tied it; put my shoes on; put my backpack of important stuff on, held my pocket knife in one hand, and my citronella bug spray in the other hand (I had first hand experience that this stuff burns like hell if you get it in your eyes) and listened to every brush movement outside my tent fully alert until dawn.
I continued to wish for the man to fall asleep wherever he is, to not come back to my tent. I continued to wish for this night to pass safely. If he came back, my plan was to cut the back of my tent open and run through the bushes to the street and back to the last village. I concluded that if we got into a struggle I would not intend to kill him, that I would just try to hurt him badly enough to be able to get away. I desperately tried to recall all the self defense moves my colleague at Prism Engineering had thought me. And I kept Knowing that I would be OK.

I don't know why he walked away. But he never tried to get into my tent (I would have heard the zippers jingle I think) and he didn't touch a thing on my bike (All my bags other than my bag of important stuff was outside on my bike). The only explanation I have been able to reach is that he was poor and homeless, and I was in his spot. Ultimately, he was a good man - he didn't touch me nor my bike.
This is the picture I took of the fields of this event at 6am when I left with a sigh of relief.
The profound realization out of this experience was that I was ready to face my biggest fear and I was ready to come out of it ok. I truly think my believing in him that he is a good man that he will walk away manifested and nothing bad happened. I believe in the power of truly pure desires.
Also in my 5hrs of waiting for dawn, I figured out why most of us perform so well under pressure... under pressure we have no time to over-think, we move from our gut rather than from our head and so our actions are most aligned with our true nature.
And I wonder if the story would have been different if I have had my pants on, and had he come by when I was actually sleeping. There was a reason for my experience, in exactly the way it happened.

Now to wrap this lengthy of a post on a better note... travelling with three French boys for three weeks, I had a good opportunity to learn a little bit more French. In Myanmar, I mastered the phrases "Merde alors!" and "Il fait chaud!" :)

The end of the road for my SE Asia bike tour was in Burma.
What I was missing most of the time during this tour was camping.. ...riding with Frenchies granted me this wish.
There is nothing more profound than waking up to fresh air, view of the sunrise, and if you're lucky the sound of the bell of cows grazing near by.

And c'est tout about Burma! It was intense.. in good and bad and tough and easy ways. I'm really glad I went, I would totally go back, and I really hope the country's tourism changes course from its current direction.

Meanwhile, back in Bangkok I've been in major recovery mode. I didn't leave Christer's city block for 4 days! Poor Christer I bet he is regretting hosting me a little ;)
I will stay in Thailand for a month or so, to relax and get my game plan together for the next stage of this 29th year journey :)

This is officially the end of my bike trip in SE Asia. I will post some summary posts of reflections and statistics soon. After that I will likely just keep in touch with all of you personally by email during my time in France.
Tentative ETA back to Vancouver right now is November.

Akhe no post is complete without a cute picture of a kitty :)


  1. You know I love you and I am so proud of you. Now get your skinny butt here and visit me quick. Newsha.

  2. Wow what an experience! So glad you're safe and sound! Have a good rest in Thailand. Skype soon? :)


  3. am reading your blog again and again!!!!!

    such strong literacy!!!!

    this post was the highlight of your posts!!!

    you are an amazing soul.

    you are an amazing woman....

    so much genuine good energy is shining through you, joon-e del!...

    I am head over heals aziz-e modar....