An element of comedy is often the unexpected.
Just now, I was trying to open the refrigerator door. It was resisting, so I gave one… two… three pulls. And, off comes the entire handle. The approximately 1.5 meter tall door handle felt unexpectedly light in my hand. Well, that’s different, I said to myself.
Life is Myanmar is best conducted under the rule of Zero Expectations. However, 2018 has still managed to surprise me.
About ten days ago, at approximately 1am, I had my first encounter with seismic activity. Five earthquakes hit Bago, and were felt up to 100 miles away. The first earthquake was a 6 on the Richter scale, the following were 5 each. I was awake– sitting askew on a floor cushion when I felt a strange energy move my body. (Now, I understand why a certain little Thai man said he thought ghosts were “playing” with him, during one of the last earthquakes.) I quickly realized that it was the whole room that was moving. Anything suspended was swaying back and forth. As we live on the 15th floor, I imagine that we get a little more sway up here.
Approximately 6 hours later, the sound of crows woke me. Hundreds of house crows* were swooping directly, and somewhat specifically, in front of our apartment unit. Our windows are thin, so anything like tropical heat, the sound of howling street dogs, or the squawking of crows easily slips through.
(*My amateur identification.)
Earthquakes. Poetic omens of death. Wonderful.
The day that followed the 6 hours of strangeness was occupied with miscellaneous Myanmar people filling our home. Some expected, some not.
The doorbell rings, and who knows who is there- or why. Three workers come in. One leaves. Two sit in our bedroom for some 10 or 15 minutes. One returns with a ladder. The best I could do was work at my laptop, and watch the newly cleaned floors acquire comically dirty footprints.
I’ve considered making workers put on hotel slippers when they come inside… But, that’s probably taking it too far.
For now, with the refriderator handle loosely in place, the sound of construction is our only visitor. Which at least, is expected.
We rang in 2017 with a low key celebration at our Japanese friends’ home in Vevey, Switzerland. When Shu answered the door in bootie slippers and a Moroccan djellaba, I knew it was going to be a good night. He and Nana donned my handmade party hats like the incredibly good sports they always are. Following a terrace bonfire, a distant firework show, and numerous glasses of wine and sake, we slipped into 2018.
Countless events have passed since then, and seemingly have been devoured in a time vortex. Somehow, the calendar has flung itself to the week of Thanksgiving.
Naturally, I think of my family who will be gathering in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But, Vevey was our first home together. The place we shared “Our First Thanksgiving” with our family of friends. We started our own traditions, some of which were slightly forced upon us. Like having roasted chicken instead of turkey. A special-ordered frozen turkey would have cost us circa 150 U.S. dollars, so we embraced the fellow fowl.
Vevey was training ground for me to learn how to cook with different ingredients, and exercise a little creativity in the kitchen. (Those reading this in the United States, please take a moment -for my sake- to be thankful for your abundant food choices in the myriad of grocery stores.) The supermarket in Yangon may have very inconsistent stock, and definitely some black market goods... But, it is a supermarket! Myanmar has been teaching us to manage expectations and maintain a flexible attitude, so our 2017 Thanksgiving menu will do the same.
All that being said, there is another international lesson that I am grateful for having learned:
There is always more than one way of doing something. And, those ways that are different from yours are just as real, and just as valuable.
My home country is founded on immigration. Pilgrims road up from Europe, and started all kinds of who-knows-what. Good and bad. History, of every land, has a bias of its teller. My ancestors came, and we left- for our own visions of betterment and a different life.
Today, we hang our hats in a country that is 9,125 miles (14,685 km) away from our birthplace. We look so different from the locals that it is common for them to ask to take photos with us.
For me, these contrasts are eye opening. Not, negative. Honestly, I often think of a friends’ comment that I should dress like a Disney Princess, walk down Yangon’s streets, and see what kind of commotion I would cause. The people here are precious, so it’s my pleasure to take a photo with anyone.
In light of the holiday, I seemingly am moved to share my appreciation for what is different. Not what is, or was, traditional to me. Though, I am grateful for those who came before me to lay out such a path of opportunity.
The United States is comprised of people from around the world. Undoubtedly, this fourth Thursday of November will mean something different to each of them. We are American, and have been in various places around the world on Thanksgiving Day. Each year, I think it means a little something different to us. But, I think different is worth all of the gratitude that I can give.
Let’s paint a picture.
I’m sitting on the floor, working from our coffee table. There are tiny Myanmar men in our storage room inside our apartment. What they’re doing exactly, I have no clue. I can hear tape being pulled and the rattling from their ladder. The ceiling is falling down because the air con is leaking. At least in that room, when I hear creaking and cracking, I know it’s not ghosts- just the ceiling literally falling apart. (It's widely accepted that Myanmar is full of ghosts.)
The city view from our balcony is slowly disappearing, as the monsoon season drags itself over our building. A message dings to tell me my delivery is on its way, “But they have traffice jam.”
This is Myanmar.
We live in Yangon, Myanmar. Sometimes I say that aloud, and it makes me laugh. We actually live here! It’s bananas.
According to our landlord, we were the fourth set of people to move into our building. That which is new is definitely not without problems here. It more signifies being a guinea pig. As the apartment units are individually owned, workers arrive as the units are rented out. Sometimes the noises I hear, from above and around us, genuinely sound like the pyramids are being built. That, or someone is playing marbles. Unidentifiable noises are a constant companion.
Note: David mentioned to me that our home is the most peaceful place in Yangon.
Since we have moved to Myanmar, I have grown extremely comfortable with having multiple strangers running-around inside our home. On our officially moving day, I counted 16. However, they are nearly always adorable, tiny people. Sometimes they are very stinky, and I follow them around with incense. Because I’m especially foreign, I figure they have no idea what I’d normally be doing.
Three additional people have walked through the front door, followed by the tropical humidity. The door was open for possibly two minutes, and the tile feels tacky.
Oh, I do have other things to paint today.
Godspeed to all tourists who wander into the Medina of Marrakech.
In most North African cities you will find a Medina quarter. They are known for their high walls, and winding and narrow passageways. These tight spaces forcibly turn the Medina into a pedestrian zone. Almost. You may not be able to extend both arms without touching a wall, yet many streets are still occupied by donkey carts, toy-sized trucks, and other imminent dangers to unwary extremities. A Medina is also a personal nightmare for the directionally inept. Some were even constructed with confusion in mind, planned as deterrents for invaders.
One can imagine why this information is not immediately presented in your travel guide. But, for all the things you can find there… the Medina presents experiences well worth wandering for.
We simply didn't have the time to join the exasperated tourists, who grieved over their city maps. We learned our routes and quickly became preoccupied with the overwhelming stimulation of the Medina.
Gorgeous rugs covered every surface imaginable. Traditional lamps in all shades of brass, gold, and silver were seen high and low. The fragrances of spice shops wafted through the streets. Fresh mint and vegetables for sale were laid on bed sheets along on the ground. And, rows upon rows of brilliantly colored babouche slippers caught my attention.
Also begging for our attention was every hawker in the vicinity.
Marrakech may be best known for their souks- a collection of markets, shops, and small workshops of various craftspeople. In fact, the Medina in Marrakech has the most expansive traditional Berber marketplace in Morocco. And, there is no doubt you will be harassed and hounded.
Stepping into a stall is a dangerous move. It is no simple task to walk in, and walk out with the same amount of dirham in your pocket. Yet, sometimes you also leave with a worthwhile memory.
There was an especially convincing man peddling herbs, homeopathic remedies, and other jars of curiosities. He boasted that his eucalyptus smelling-salts would cure snoring. Then, he demonstrated. He scooped a few salts into a small dingy cloth and twisted the fabric around them, creating a compact bundle. He proceeded to press down one of David’s nostrils with his finger, and shoved the small sachet into David’s other nostril. “NOW, breathe deeply!”
I felt a wide smile spilling over my face.
To fully prove the effectiveness, I got the same treatment.
Beyond the covered souks, more sensory experiences awaited us. Most especially in the main square, Jemaa El Fna. A place that transforms every day and night- where depending on the hour, you can find storytellers, snakes, human teeth, or an amazing variety of the dishes and delights of Moroccan cuisine.
A mountainous country, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, home to the Berber people, the Sahara desert, and mint tea. This would be my first trip to Africa. Specifically, the Kingdom of Morocco.
North Africa has always captured my attention. Since I was a child, nothing has been more fascinating than ancient Egypt. Then, I discovered babouches- traditional Moroccan slippers. If slippers igniting my desire to visit a country isn’t bad enough, I won’t explain my desire to see goats climbing trees.
As luck would have it, David surprised me with a trip to Marrakech as an early birthday gift.
It was late January, but we stepped outside of the airport to find a brightly shining sun. We were elated to escape the winter weather of our Swiss home. There was still a briskness to the air, but our heavy coats were taking a break.
Our hotel arranged a taxi to meet us at the airport- an amiable driver and a jalopy of a Mercedes. We weren’t convinced it was an actual Mercedes, or that the car would remain in one piece for much longer. The taxi had zero evidence of ever having seatbelts, and I worried the chassis was made of rubber bands. Marrakech was quickly sprinkling hints of an impending adventure.
Despite its other qualities, the car ride provided a great introduction to the city sights. Palms, olive trees, minarets, and desert colors decorated the landscape. It was as if the city was painted with sand and warm spices.
The taxi took us as far as possible, but our accommodations were only accessible by foot. Our driver knew the way, and wasted no time. He kindly snatched up my suitcase and sped down the narrow alleyways- often disappearing from view, making quick turns. I could still hear the clacking of my luggage wheels on the cobbled streets which gave me some solace. After a few minutes of imagining the vanished contents of my suitcase, we arrived at our hotel safe and sound.
By hotel, I mean riad. A riad is a traditional Moroccan home. They’re built around a centralized garden or courtyard, and were intended to house entire families. Thus, the hotel transformation is a perfect fit.
Our room opened directly into the courtyard on the ground floor. It was lovely to open our doors to the sunshine and a blooming orange tree.
After being welcomed with mint tea by the hotel owner, we were ready to take our first stab at the Medina- the extensive old quarter of Marrakech, labyrinth of wonder.
We had already driven two hours away from the Christchurch airport when we found out the unfortunate news. Our airline moved our flight back. An entire day. Our departure was now less than 12 hours away. As you can imagine, our future bookings and travel plans were officially a huge mess. If the airline was a person, I would have been tempted to plot revenge… like dying all their shirts pink, or snipping off all of their pant pockets.
Needless to say, our time was cut short in Kaikoura- a seaside town best known for whale-watching and all manners of sea-life encounters. Luckily, the owners of our charming bed and breakfast (where we were, again, the sole occupants) had excellent advice for our unexpectedly brief visit. The next morning, we took a quick drive in hopes of catching a glimpse of a New Zealand fur seal colony.
We had two chances to see the seals: Directly off of the coastal highway, or across the road by a waterfall down a forest path. The baby seals sometimes played in the later area, so we heard.
You could say serendipity had found us, again. At Ohau Point, there were seals of all sizes bathing in the frothy waves of the South Pacific Ocean.
There was time to spare, so we said, Why, not. We’re here already, and wandered down the forest path. It was simply opposite the point, afterall.
“Unbelieveable!!! You’re in for a real treat!” exclaimed an apparently flabbergasted man who we passed along the way. Hm. I shifted my eyes over to David’s, raising my eyebrows.
However, it didn’t take long for us to start understanding the man’s reactions. First, there were a handful of seal pups in the stream. Hands down, it was the closest we had ever been to such an animal. Then, we saw a seal sitting in the middle of the forest. By himself. Weird. And then, we arrived at the waterfall…
Oh, my goodness. So many seals!
There were more seal pups than I could count, and they were splashing and jumping and playing like truly wild children. We could have very feasibly touched them. However, I imagined my finger as a fish, and decided to keep my hands to myself.
Nearly every New Zealand experience we found was unexpected. We knew a beautiful land awaited, but my! what a trip this turned out to be. It was all a sort of weird and wonderful time.
Thus, we had many kiwi visions dancing in our heads for our journey back… A trek which became a 42-hour calendar day.
It was time to turn right-side-up again.
Driving, driving, driving, and more driving. To fully experience New Zealand, you are obligated to take a serious road trip. At least, it gave us plenty of time to practice driving on the left side. We started to actually turn on the blinker instead of the windshield wipers!
After another stint on the highway, we arrived in our Fiordland hub- Te Anou. It was the off-season, and we had the entire Cosy Kiwi “bed ‘n’ breakfast” to ourselves. We did everything there was to do in town: We saw the scenic short film of Fiordland, Ata Whenua - Shadowlands; We had coffee and another pumpkin pastry in the town’s sole cafe; And, we checked the conditions of Milford Road- the only driving path to Milford Sound.
Luckily, we had exceptional weather for the season and the drive proved to be another highlight. We found numerous forms of terra, fauna, and flora along our way.
Milford Sound is actually incorrectly named, as it is not a sound at all. I will allow you to look up that definition on your own, if you’re curious. Milford Sound is a genuine fjord, formed by glaciers tearing through the earth.
To sum up our experience, Milford Sound was spectacular. We saw dolphins, seals, waterfalls (and rainbows exposed through their mist) amongst the awesomely carved passageways to the Tasman Sea. Words pale in comparison to the physical visions of the fjord.
Afterwards, we had a light trapse through a moss-covered fairy forest. A serendipitous finding that easily sat amidst my most enjoyed New Zealand moments.
To maximise our time, we took a flight up from Queenstown to Christchurch. It was our first zero-security flight experience to our memory. Neither our carry-on luggage, or ourselves were screened or inspected. Unbelievable and honestly confusing.
Upon arrival in Christchurch, we got back in a rental car and drove north to Kaikoura. We anticipated spending two night in the coastal town… Yet, we had no idea of the looming kerfuffle in our very near future.
Wrapping up our adventures in the North Island, we made a quick visit to the Coromandel Peninsula. We saw the Hot Water Beach, where at low tide you can dig yourself a natural hot tub in the sand. We enjoyed scenic views all along the coast, including ones seen from a short hike to Gemstone Bay.
Then, it was off to the South Island!
We had heard especially glowing reviews of the South, and were eager to see it for ourselves.
Our first stop after landing in Christchurch was the small town of Lake Tekapo. Twinkling and glittering reviews might have been most appropriate for this destination. The town is situated within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve- over 1,000,000 acres dedicated to being free of artificial light pollution. Thus, the star-gazing was phenomenal and never to be forgotten. We could plainly see the Milky Way and an unusually brilliant Mars and Saturn.
One night, we drove even deeper into the countryside n persuit of stars, and nearly scared the bugeezums out of ourselves. “Why is there a tiny shed right there? There’s nothing around for miles…” A small, ratty structure stood completely alone in the darkness. A chain, that might have held a bell at one time, swung menacingly above the door. I pretended to be brave enough to inspect the little hut, but decided against it when I was about 5 feet away.
As the night’s sky is my favorite natural wonder, all spookiness endured was more than worthwhile.
There was the sky, then there was the inland sea. Lake Tekapo is an actual body of water, for which the town is named. And, it was our first demonstration of how glacier lakes exceeded our expectations.
The lake was big, beautiful, and blue. We were nearly blown away. I mean this literally, as we viewed the lake from atop Mt. John where the wind was unbelievably strong. It was the type of icy wind that makes your nose run profusely. But also the type to be kind enough to blow so forcefully that it acts as a tissue- blowing nose-water clean off your face. "Why, thank you, Wind," one might say begrudgingly.
We were advised to also pay a visit to Lake Pukaki, another glacier lake. Perhaps it was the right day, time, and temperature, but Lake Pukaki was perfectly incredible. It was a shade of blue water that we had never seen before. Like a cocktail of cool turquoise, aquamarine, and frothy seafoam.
It was truly a day of bewilderment. In a stone’s throw, we left the azure lakes and hazy blue mountains to find an utterly new landscape. As if we had driven directly into a wormhole, and popped out in another land. Yet, we simply were transversing the Lindis Pass- a valley covered in New Zealand’s iconic tussocks, which made the mountains look as if they were made from camels’ backs rather than of earth.
Every day, another place, unplanned, amazed, in the Land of the Kiwis.
For those with a child’s sense of wonder as well as their sense of humor, Rotarua is a blast. If we hadn’t seen enough evidence that the earth’s interior was hot and unpredictable, we certainly were about to.
In the "Sulfur City," a simple crack in the pavement could quickly resemble the nostril of a fire-breathing dragon. The city park particularly smelled of egg and its landscaping was designed around pools of boiling mud. There was definitely something comical in the air, between the plopping and blooping mud bubbles and the general idea that this was a small paradise for the gassy.
However, the real highlight of Rotarua was Te Puia, the Mäori cultural center just at the edge of town. The Mäori people have lived within the Te Puia grounds for nearly 700 years, and now dedicate the site to preserving and sharing their history and culture. Within Te Puia, is the Te Whakarewarewa Valley- home of an astonishing amount of geothermal activity. Cracks in the earth’s crust called fumaroles, mudpots, hot springs, geysers… Visions of dinosaurs coming to extinction in boiling muddy pits floated through my imagination. The most tremendous natural fountain the park boasted was the Pohutu geyer, which gushes 100 feet (30 meters) into the air throughout the day.
And, for the ultimate cherry on top- they had a REAL, live kiwi bird exhibit! It was like stumbling into a dark room (as kiwis are typically timid and nocturnal birds) to find a thing of dreams come to life. To be quite honest, I never thought of how big a kiwi bird actually was. Perhaps I was completely out of touch with the Avialae world, but I imagine a feathered ball the size of a grapefruit. When in fact, they are comparable to the size of a healthy chicken! It was one of my most surreal experiences. A kiwi bird. And, it looks so.. so strange. It wasn’t exactly helping its odd appearance by fiendishly digging through the turf with its long beak like one of its most valued earrings just fell out.
But, what a wild and wondrous place New Zealand was turning out to be… Even amongst the stinkiest parts. Fittingly, the Mäori called their country by a dreamy sort of name- Aotearoa, or “Land of the Long White Cloud.”
A good morning in New Zealand begins with a flat white.
We found ourselves longing for iced coffee or tea on balmy Fijian mornings. But, it was an entirely different story in New Zealand. One that challenged our love for the tropical heat. On a chilly morning, with no pressing agenda, sitting together in a rustic cafe, drinking a good, hot coffee was idyllic charm for the books.
In layman’s terms, a flat white is Australia and New Zealand’s version of coffee and milk. Specifically, steamed whole milk over a double shot of espresso. Like a cappuccino, yet less foamy and with a typically higher coffee content. Understanding the nuances of milk-with-coffee styles from around the world can be exhausting. The only real thing one needs to know, is that a flat white is unquestionably yummy.
To our delight, we found most of our tastiest meals in the morning. Time after time, we discovered absolutely adorable and delicious cafes across the country. Sweet and savory scones were popular in cafes. The savory versions being slightly new for us, but extremely well-received. With a bit of New Zealand’s best butter (from all those fancy-free cows) we nibbled our way into breakfast bliss.
In Rotarua, we found an exceptional spot, Be Rude Not to Cafe. David ordered quinoa and berry porridge, which turned out to be a pleasant and unusual dish that resembled a purplish Cream of Wheat. Meanwhile, I had some of the world’s most delicious granola. Oh, to revel in joyous morning munching!
No one stopped us from visiting cafes throughout the day, either. An afternoon flat white was certainly taken advantage of. It also felt a teensy-bit less irresponsible to eat sweets in the afternoon, versus during the “most important meal of the day.” Thanks to our unbridled snacking, we luckily stumbled upon one of New Zealand’s most famed treats: the Afghan biscuit. It’s a soft chocolate cookie (by U.S. terminology) made with corn flakes, and topped with a dollop of chocolate icing and a walnut halve. Supposedly no one knows the origin of its name... But, it is a Kiwi favorite and we understood why.
Concerning our favorites, we truly visited New Zealand at the opportune time. Late autumn translated to pumpkin and gourds galore- some of my most loved foods.
Within our calendar year, we would endure winter, spring, two summers, two autumns, and return to winter, again… All due to where we were on the globe. As disorienting as it may be, the littlest things can make it a priceless experience. Like eating your favorite seasonal produce twice in one year. And, sharing a good coffee over a cold autumn morning with your most special someone.