Burma… I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t know how to express how much I needed the exact five days that I had there, or how to recount them and do them justice. For that reason (and because I am exhausted after those five days) I am hiding out in my room today. There is a tendency on the ship after every port for people to immediately launch into telling everyone how amaaaaaazing their time was, and it often taints my perception of my own experience. I don’t need to hear about everything I missed out on when I know that what I did meant a lot to me. So I choose to write, sleep, and catch up on emails all day instead of socializing.
I fell in love over and over again in Burma. That may sound incredibly cheesy, but it’s the only way I know how to put it:
First, I fell in love with Buddhism. It is a religion that has looked different in every country we’ve been to. In Burma, it is golden, and it is hidden and everywhere at the same time. It comes in the form of beautiful golden pagodas, scattered through cities and rural areas alike, hidden behind buildings or trees until suddenly it pops out and beckons you to it. I visited a few in my time in Burma, and they are all awe-inspiring. At first, from afar, it seems like they are just simple and lovely constructions that you’re meant to circumambulate and then move along from. Up close, they are so much more than that. Endless smaller pavilions and nooks full of gorgeous and colorful Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes surround them. They are full of hidden treasures and hiding places that create all kinds of different experiences for those who choose to worship there. They are home to a kind of spirituality I had never before seen. On my first day in Burma, I explored Yangon with a few friends, and we went to the Shwedagon Pagoda that it is famous for. It appeared as we approached it, hovering above the city as so many smaller pagodas had throughout the day. To enter it, we climbed up the stairs in a long, dark hall that suddenly opened up to its brilliant gold light. As soon as I got there, and despite the sweltering heat, I felt like I could stay there forever. Hundreds of people were there, walking around or kneeling in some private nook, and the energy of those prayers was tangible. I sat down for twenty minutes just to watch everyone – monks and nuns and tourists and locals - and listen to the prayers being chanted over the loudspeaker. I felt alive and connected and at peace with the world. Ohm.
Next, I fell in love with Burma’s people. They are sweet and kind and generous and beautiful (really – they are very physically attractive. This is one of the first things I noticed). They dress in traditional Burmese clothes – the men wear skirt-like sarongs, and the women wear colorful wrap-around skirts with matching shirts. They wear no makeup except for a yellow mud-like paste that supposedly protects their skin from the sun. Smiling at them brings out the best smiles I have ever seen, as well as waves and hellos and conversations. Each day that I was there, I had multiple interactions that impressed and amazed me. I went to Ngwe Saung, a beach town, for most of my time in Burma, and on our first night there a few of us befriended a local 20-year-old named Ankar. He came and sat with us at the little restaurant we had decided to stop at for a drink, and we bought him a beer. We talked for an hour, despite the language barrier, and by the end of that hour he was calling us “my friends,” feeding us (literally – he picked things up with chopsticks and put it in our mouths) local food that he had the 12-year-old waiter bring to our table, and telling us everything he could about his life and family. He told us he lived just down the road, and invited us to stop by the next day. So, the next day, we rented bikes (one US dollar for an hour) and rode over to his house. It was a little shack, like most Burmese houses, and doubled as his family’s restaurant. He beckoned us over to the corner of the restaurant and had us sit on his bed, explaining that his family was very poor but that it was okay. He put his pet rabbit in my lap, pulled plastic chairs around a table for us, and asked his parents to bring us food to try. “Present,” he said as he pushed the food toward us. We were all afraid that the food might make us sick, but we tried it anyway, knowing that Ankar, despite being poorer than anyone we had ever met, was showing us the greatest generosity we had ever seen. We were all sad to part ways with him at the end of our stay.
I fell in love with elephants. Again. They are such amazing animals, and I have always felt a strange love for and connection with them. Despite their size, they are peaceful and loving, and they are not only smart but, somehow, wise. In class the other day, a guest lecturer came to talk to us about Hinduism, and the subject of elephants came up. He said that, in India, they are symbols of “strength and power.” Once again, I felt my connection with them surge. Those exact words connected to my own soul and what I’m searching after, and the meaning of my love for elephants seemed to make more sense. Getting to interact with elephants right after hearing that was perfect.
Lastly, I fell in love with the ocean. Surprisingly, this was one of the first times I have felt that way. The ocean has always scared me and exhausted me a little, though I’ve lived near it in a lot of different places throughout my life – I grew up going to the beach in California, have lived on an island in Washington state every summer since I was twelve, and even lived in Hawaii for a time. Also, as you may have noticed, I’ve been on a ship sailing through the ocean for the past two months. For some reason, though, it took me getting to Burma to finally learn to love it. I loved the beach. I loved the sand. I loved the water. I walked for hours on that beach, and I ran and I swam and I read and I wrote there. I felt the water connecting me back to all of those places I’ve lived and loved, and especially to that little island in Washington I love to call home. And I felt okay for the first time that I’m not going back this summer, knowing that it would always be there, and that the ocean would always be there, and that I’d always somehow be connected to both.
That was Burma, for me. The Burma I can’t recount to my friends in five minutes when they ask me what I did there. The Burma that I desperately needed after losing myself a little in the opulence of Singapore. Burma, that is still almost untouched by Western culture. The first place I’ve been on this voyage where Starbucks and McDonalds don’t exist. The place I would choose to be reborn in in another life, and the place where I felt at home even in my tall, blonde, foreign body.