Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Day At The Beach

29 April 2015 

Days at the beach have their own special rhythm.  The focus is on playing in the water and relaxing in the shade.  Spend the hottest hours mid-day in the AC room - you know, the time when “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”  Those hours.  (And for those who think of Myanmar and Mandalay as “wasn’t there a poem or something, The Road to Mandalay?”  Yes, there was, and yes, the poem is by Rudyard Kipling, he of the “mad dogs” quotation.)

There’s the after-breakfast walk on the beach, before
the sun heats up the sand to burn-your-soles hot.  I love my morning walk on the beach, a mile or two in one direction or the other, then back - with my trusty camera, my walks turn into photo safaris, or maybe a photo shoot with the hat.  The boats at anchor change daily, as do the cast of characters playing in the waves.  Early morning finds few people in the water, but there are always several hardy souls out there for a swim, or children playing in the waves and foam.  Our beach is lovely soft sand, miles and miles to the east of our hotel, and maybe only one mile to the west.  At the west end, just this side of the hill, is an estuary or inlet, which seems to be full of water at high tide, and maybe during rainy season.  But at low tide, the boats are marooned on sand bars, looking sad at being left high and dry, despite their cheerful colors.  There’s something about brightly painted boats that is so picturesque, that demands photographs and paintings and sketches.
The hotel also has a wonderful pool, which is refreshing at any time of day.  Lounge chairs are available for sunning, and the breakfast tables look over the pool to the beach beyond.  Aqua tiles infinity pool that looks like it flows into the aqua sea beyond!

The café here is
wonderful for lunch and dinner - and yes, we could wander out to the restaurants along the road, but food preparation can be a problem in Myanmar.  Salad vegs need to be washed properly and thoroughly, meat and fish needs to be fresh, and drinks with ice are questionable.  During such hot days, I tend to want salad for lunch, and the hotel café is safe.  Besides, a salad with giant grilled prawns is less expensive than the salad with grilled chicken, so who are we to complain, or go elsewhere?  Papaya or watermelon juice on the side, and I’m set!  (And yes, they have some sandwiches, and a burger which they didn’t overcook to death.  So Richard is satisfied, though not thrilled.)

Early afternoon tends to be time to nap, read, try to get on the internet, or just
prepare the blog for when I can get a decent wifi connection.  Downloading, editing, and labelling photos also takes place in the early afternoon.  By 4 or so, the sun isn’t as hot, and it’s time to wander back out to the beach.  Or maybe read under one of the palm frond umbrellas on the beach, while relaxing on a comfy lounge.  (Life is full of options, and sometimes it’s so difficult to choose.)

This time of year, the wind comes up in the afternoon, creating decent swells, so the teens are out in the water with inner tubes, riding the waves that roll in and crash on the beach.  Some of the waves are pretty good-sized - not exactly surfing waves, but enough to topple the inner-tube-riders and
knock them off their black rings.  Lots of screaming and squealing, and it looks like great fun!  (We haven’t found where one can borrow or rent an inner tube - you know I’d be out there in a minute!)

The beach has areas with big outcroppings of rock jutting out, making small rocky hills amid the sand.  The big waves crash in, creating huge sprays of splash and foam, full of sound and fury and looking very dramatic against the dark craggy rocks!  Young men tend to climb on top of the biggest rocks and pose for their friends, getting soaking wet as the waves send spray all around. 

I looked closely at some of the rocks, and while
most of the rocks look like nice solid metamorphic rock, I think some of it might be igneous, or volcanic.  The eroded patterns look almost like air pockets, the way rock looks when formed by molten lava hitting water.  I don’t know for sure, I’m just guessing.  And Dad’s hat isn’t talking.  But the hat enjoyed the beach time, as well as exploring the rocks covered in barnacles, and the scattered tide pools with small fish and crabs scuttling around.  The hat and I shared memories of summers spent on beaches, Dad doing his beach research, and the five of us kids playing in the sand, surf, rocks.  Beaches always evoke memories of our wonderful summers.  Idyllic in memory, if not actually back then.  (The summer in Nova Scotia, when I was about 10 or 11 years old, was my first try at scuba diving.  Those summers at the beach influenced my life choices far more than I would realize at the time.)

And then a crowd gathers to watch sunset over the hill to the west.  Not that we actually see the sun seeming to sink into the ocean; no, it goes down behind that hill.  But the sky turns wonderful shades of yellow and peach and rose and finally a deep lavender, and the sea reflects those colors.  As does the wet sand as the waves crash and thunder on the rocks.  It really is a spectacular time of day, sunset.  Sunrise probably would be wonderful as well, but neither of us seem to be in a hurry to climb out of our comfy bed and leave our large room, complete with a balcony.  So I haven’t seen a sunrise here, and keep thinking well, maybe tomorrow.

Richard and I were chatting at breakfast, and he asked if I was ready to leave tomorrow.  No way, I could easily stay another week.  Or several weeks.  I could even see living here for quite a while. 

But we only have a 28-day visa from the Myanmar government, and it expires on May 5.  Our flight back to Bangkok is scheduled for May 4.  So we’ll head back to Yangon on Thursday, as planned, and explore that city for a few more days before winging our way back to Thailand.

We have a vague plan for the next few months, though no dates yet.  Just the outline of a plan.  We’ll get back to the US for our annual medical checks and renewing the prescriptions.  I’ll “shop” for a new wardrobe in the stored boxes, we’ll both stock up on toiletries.  We’ll visit family and friends, of course, and catch up on everyone’s lives.  See how the little ones have grown, meet the baby born while we were somewhere in Asia. 

And then hit the road again.  We have yet to visit India, China, and the countries in-between those two huge nations.  We were both looking forward to Nepal, but that might have to be on hold for a while.  So so sad to learn of the tragedy of this earthquake, watching the news with tears in our eyes.  Truly devastating.  We met many Nepali people working in various countries we’ve visited, and most were trying to earn enough money to return to Nepal and open a business - there’s that connection you make when seeing the same people over and over, chatting, developing a friendship.  We hope that relief can arrive soon, that trapped people and the mountain climbers are rescued, that the people of Nepal and the neighboring countries have what they need to survive and rebuild.

The big question is always “Where next?”  Where do we go within a country, especially when we have limited time?  Where do we go when we leave on place, heading elsewhere?  And do we want to stay within the same region, the same continent, or go somewhere completely different?

So, we're back in Yangon now, just got back today (30 April) - there's some famous Buddhist monk speaking at an event, and the street for our hotel is blocked off.  We walked around the back of the stage, had to take off our shoes/sandals to walk down the red carpet and the various mats that were set up for this special event, and pass monks sitting in the audience or arriving to hear the speaker.  There was also a special altar or shrine set up, with golden statues of Buddha covered in fragrant garlands of jasmine and orange blossom, or something similar.  No idea what it was all about, but it was exciting and colorful!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lion Fish, Nudibranchs, and Nemo

28 April 2015

Scuba diving!  One of these years, I’ll get an underwater camera so I can take photos of the exciting things we see when diving.  It’s a whole other world down there!

The day we arrived, the hotel people called the dive operator in the area, and the young man who speaks English, Ping, met up with us.  We booked the two tank dives for Sunday, and he met us at
7:30 AM, as planned. 
Drove us out to a jetty at one end of the huge bay here, climbed into a dinghy, and we headed out to the dive boat.  This was essentially a cabin cruiser that was retro-fitted as a dive boat, so there was a ton of space - two decks, the lower deck holding all the dive gear and tanks.  The two of us were the only clients for the day, on this spacious boat.  

Even though we had breakfast at our hotel, there was a nice spread with fruit and coffee for us, and we relaxed as we got under way.

We motored across the bay to a small fishing village, to pick up the dive leader, Ming Wu.  And then headed to the far end of the bay, where we were going to dive.

Now, each dive shop has their own way of doing things.  But this operation was unique.  We were on  the large boat, which anchored in an area without coral on the seabed.  And we needed to take
the dinghy over to the two areas where we’d dive, on the coral reef.  This meant fitting us for the gear (fins, masks, and weight belts, mostly) on the big boat, putting all that into the dinghy, donning our shortie wetsuits, getting the tanks and buoyancy vests into the dinghy, and then us climbing into the dinghy as well.  

While in the dinghy, we then put on all our gear - weight belts, fins, buoyancy vest with the tank hooked on - so we were sitting in the dinghy wearing a good 40+ lbs of gear.  Richard and I kept thinking, there we were with weight belts, so if we fell overboard we'd sink, and have to drop the belts to not drown.  I know, worst case scenario, but still!  (And as a teacher and attorney, we both think in those terms.)

Anyway, our first dive was at about 45 ft or so (15 m), and we swam and drifted with the current, wending our way around the coral reef.  There was a great deal of plankton in the water from the wind/waves the previous day, so visibility was maybe 15 ft (5 m), not great but okay.  The coral was interesting, since we could see all the colors - mostly deep greens and purples and maroons, with white edges.  Tons of fish - little purple fish with yellow tails (fairy basslets), red squirrel fish, all kinds of butterfly fish in different yellow, black, or white stripes, and interesting angel fish with long floating tendrils on their dorsal fins.  We also saw nudibranchs, which are sort of like little sea slugs but not gross the way land slugs are - nudibranchs come in various colors and patterns, and some have feathery antennas on their heads.  Interesting little guys!

Of course, we also saw a clown fish family hanging around an anemone - clown fish are immune to the toxins in sea anemones, so they use the anemone to protect their eggs and young.  We saw Mama Nemo, Papa Nemo, and two little tiny baby Nemos, all swimming around among the tentacles of their anemone bed.

Our dive leader showed us a tiny little yellow puffer fish, a cute little round fish.  Schools of small white fish with a single black stripe, other schools of neon blue fish, some big parrot fish munching on the coral, and all sorts of fish we couldn’t identify - but lots and lots of fish all over the place. 

The best, though, was the lion fish I found!  I’ve never seen these outside aquariums before, so this was amazing!  Lion fish can be nasty creatures - certain species are poisonous, while others devour most of the fish on a coral reef.  They’ve invaded the Atlantic and Caribbean, and are decimating reefs there.  (We went to the lion fish training program in St. Thomas, and Richard made a few sightings - I never did.)  But in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, they have natural predators and so lion fish aren’t as much of a problem.  Anyway, they’re small black and white or brown and white striped fish with long spines on their back and for side fins, each spine having tapered skin and looking like individual feathers.  Really beautiful fish, but definitely rather ominous looking!  It was exciting to see two of them on this reef. 

After maybe 45 minutes, we did our three minute safety stop at 15 ft depth (5 m), and then headed to the surface.  The dinghy returned to pick us up - and this is always the worst part for me.  After 45 minutes of being weightless in the water while acting like a mermaid, gravity always hits me hard.  And then, instead of climbing up a ladder into the large boat, we had to climb out of the water into the dinghy.  I’m so bad at this.  First, we handed up our weight belts, then the tank/vest combo, and then, with fins on, we were supposed to boost ourselves into the dinghy.  Now, I can boost myself backwards onto a wall when I’m standing in front of it, no problem.  But this is boosting myself out of the water and into a boat when the part I’m holding, the gunwales, is above my head.  I don’t have the upper body strength for this, no matter how hard I kick with the fins; I can get high enough to hold on with my arms in the boat, but I can’t seem to get my body into the dinghy. 

So I ended up boosting myself up and then getting dragged into the dinghy by the crew.  Into a little, two bench, five-person dinghy.  Stuck for a moment or two balanced on the edge of the boat on my belly, unable to go forward or backward, and then dragged onto a seat, on my stomach.  Which meant that to roll onto my back, I had to fall onto the bottom of the boat.  Of course, I rolled onto some feet and legs of the crew, and we all burst out helplessly laughing as I flailed around like a captured manatee or something.  I eventually managed to sit on a bench next to Richard - and his entry into the boat was better than mine, but definitely not graceful.  
Anyway, we all had a good laugh, and headed back to the main boat.  Had our surface interval (needed to prevent a toxic build-up of nitrogen, which occurs with breathing air from the tank at depth), and then had our second dive.  We went to a different part of the reef, which didn’t have as many exciting fish, but had a lot of table coral - it looks like a flat curlique tabletop above a single pedestal.  With little fish darting in and out of the curls of coral.

This was a shallow dive, all of 9 - 12 ft (3 to 4 m), so we were able to stay down for a longer time.  There was quite a bit of surge underwater, and when we surfaced we discovered why: the wind had come up and there were strong waves, probably 2 or 3 ft (just under 1 m) - not huge waves, but enough to created the surge underwater, and to bounce us around as we floated and waited for the dinghy.  (Which made the entry into the dinghy even worse, and I have the bruised arms and stomach to show for it.)

And then, the dinghy ride back - with all the gear, plus all the people, the dinghy started taking on water every time we hit a wave!  It got to the point where the engine was swamped and cut out, and we drifted a bit.  After conferring a bit in Burmese, the dive leader and our interpreter, Ping, jumped overboard to lighten the boat - they grabbed their fins and just jumped!  The boat driver bailed out some water, got the engine going again, and delivered us to the big boat.  Then he went back to pick up the other two, and got everyone safely into the big dive boat.  Whew, what an adventure!

We found lunch waiting for us, but after all the bouncing around neither of us were ready for a huge meal - so we enjoyed some rice, a little shrimp in garlic sauce, very little pork in a spicy sauce, and salad, with more fruit for dessert.  Really a lovely meal, but we just weren’t ready for that much food at that time. 

Anyway, we had a slightly bouncier trip back to the dive leader’s village, passing the giant Buddha of the hill, and then back to the jetty.  A drive back, and we returned to our hotel.  Exhausted and happy - diving is wonderful exercise, but it’s also deceptively tiring.

We’re both very happy we got in some diving here in the Bay of Bengal!  (Doesn’t that sound exotic????)

And also happy our hotel has room service, so we can have supper while in our jammies!  Because a day of diving and boating really is exhausting.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ngapali Beach

25 April 2015

Ngapali Beach, re-named by Italians who were here in Myanmar during WWII with the Allied Forces, to fight the Japanese.  Pronounced like Napoli, the Italian name of

Naples.  Ngapali Beach is located on the Bay of Bengal, to the east of India, in the NE part of the Indian Ocean.

There we were, minding our own business, in a taxi on the way to the airport.  We were heading out early because traffic was jammed up, and we didn’t want to miss our flight.  There aren’t very many flights to Ngapali Beach; we couldn’t even fly on the dates we wanted because there aren’t daily flights.  Our travel agent advised that we leave for the airport by noon, so we took his advice and were on our way.

And then the driver received a call on his mobile phone, and he handed us the phone - but we couldn’t get a decent connection, and couldn’t hear a word that the other party was saying.  He told us it was our hotel calling, and he called them back.  He put it on speaker phone, but the entire conversation was in Myanmarian, so we had no idea what was going on.  We knew we hadn’t forgotten anything, so we were totally puzzled. 
Turned out our flight at 3:45 PM was cancelled, and we were put on another flight. But that flight was at 1:30 - and here it was about 12:45!!!

Traffic jam after traffic jam, red lights, and a car accident blocking one lane - our driver channelled Mario Andretti and made it to the airport just about 1 PM.  Driver leapt out of his taxi and yelled something, and a batch of people came running over as we got out - everyone was asking where are we going, what flight, I was busily explaining that we’re going to the town of Thandwe, but that we’re on a different airline than ticketed - Richard grabbed the luggage and I was hustled into the terminal and to a window, still escorted by about six or seven different people!

I handed over the tickets and passports.  The lady behind the counter found us in the computer, and issued new tickets.  I explained that we were in the taxi when we were called and informed of the flight cancellation and change, and apologized for being late - but that we didn’t know anything about it, so we couldn’t have done anything other than keep going and arrive as quickly as we could.  Someone else tagged the luggage and ran it out to the plane.  Another person came up to personally escort us through Security, and then through a crowd of people and into a van that was waiting to take us out to the plane.  It was as though we were VIPs being escorted by a security team, right to the stairs of the little jet!  Plus I was brought up to be polite, so I was smiling and thanking all the people at each stage, and they were smiling and waving us forward - as best we could figure out, the plane was actually held for us!!!!  Once we were seated, the engines roared and we started taxiing down the runway.

We still aren’t sure what time the flight was supposed to leave - but we were the last people on the flight, and were treated like celebrities the entire way.  It was really funny!

So we arrived in the town of Thandwe, found the counter for our fancy beach hotel, and I checked in - and this is a much more posh kind of place than we normally stay in, but, well, we’re right on the beach!  Just walk out of the room, down the stairs, around the pool, and there is this absolutely gorgeous beach!  Golden sand, warm aqua water, a few rocks to break up the monotony of the incredible water, and blue blue sky overhead.  Picture postcard perfect gorgeous!  And we get five whole days here!

Of course, Paradise doesn’t really exist.  If it did, we’d have speedy internet, instead of intermittent connections. 

But hey, we can just spend all our time in the water or on the beach, and catch up with the rest of the world later on.  Including posting these blogs.  So I’ll just add to my document, and eventually post when we have decent wifi speed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

From Torahs to Tomatoes

23 April 2015

Surprisingly, Yangon has a synagogue.  An active synagogue!  Right in downtown Yangon!  We had walked past it on our first day, noticing the large blue star of David on the upper floor of a building full of small shops at street level.  Later, we learned this was the side of the Musmeah Yeshuah Synagogue of Yangon - so Wednesday we visited.

So how does a synagogue end up in SE Asia?  And in Myanmar, of all places?  First, keep in mind that there are Jewish congregations in various parts of India, and that Myanmar has a sizable border with India.  Second, after Rome captured Jerusalem in 60 CE, Jews fled all over the world, including to other areas of the Middle East.  And then, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, more Jews fled to the Middle East, India, China, as well as more tolerant countries in Europe.

The original synagogue was built in 1854, but was replaced by the current building which was completed in 1896.  During the colonial years, when Britain was in power, people came from other British colonies; in Yangon, Jews from Baghdad and Cochin (India) arrived in increasing numbers, predominantly as merchants at first.  Over time, Jewish men became customs officials, and eventually the mayor of Yangon was one of the Jewish men from this population.  The Jews numbered roughly 2500 during the late 1890s through to WWII, when the Japanese occupied Myanmar and the Jewish Burmese began to flee.  Later, when the Burmese army seized power in 1962 and nationalized many businesses, more Jews left, leaving only a handful of congregants in Yangon.  Their descendants comprise the small congregation still in the city today, a congregation without a rabbi.  (The synagogue is located in the part of Yangon called "New Delhi" by local people - surrounded by Hindu temples and Islamic mosques, the neighborhood is full of apartments, shops, and restaurants owned by other people descended from Indian and Middle Eastern immigrants who chose to stay in Myanmar.)

The synagogue interior is beautiful, all serene white with greyish-blue woodwork and trim, soaring ceilings, and graceful columns.  The upstairs section for women as well as the downstairs have lovely stained class windows, so the sunlight shines in jewel-like colors.  Rattan benches speak to the tropical location of this synagogue, and the centrally-located bimah shows that this was, and still is, a Sephardic synagogue.  (I know, technically it probably should be referred to as Mizrachi, meaning the Jews came from the Middle East and other parts of Asia.  Sephardic usually means Mediterranean Jews.  But we of Ashkenazi, or European, origin tend to speak of solely Sephardim and Ashkenazim, leaving out the Mizrachim.  So my information sources refer to this congregation as Sephardic.)

We also peeked at the Torah scrolls, which were in the lovely silver cases that are typical of Sephardic and Mizrachi style.  Beautiful in worked silver with interlocking and repeating abstract patterns, and with the little bell ornaments on top (called rimmonim, translated as pomegranates - and these really looked like pomegranates!).

While the current congregation is small, the synagogue has hosted various interfaith religious and cultural events.  They are working to maintain this historic building as well as become an integral part of the Yangon faith community.

We spoke briefly with the caretake, a member of the congregation, and will try to come back for the Friday evening service (Erev Shabbat, the eve of the Sabbath).  Should be interesting - I'm sure the prayers and music, even some of the practices will be different than what we're used to.  Plus I'll be relegated to the upstairs, since women and men are still divided.  But this should be an interesting experience!

For more information about the synagogue, here are a few links: 

We walked around the neighborhood of the synagogue a bit, much of the area being a market.  Really, streets are full of merchandise from stores, little stands are put up, maybe a food cart surrounded by stacks of low stools for seating, and baskets of produce are spread around.  People can walk up and down the street, buying fish and vegs for dinner, or sit by a cart and enjoy a bowl of soup.  Or have freshly squeezed sugar can juice.  There were even baskets of live chickens, waiting to be taken home to live in someone's yard and produce eggs.  Or maybe to be dinner, I don't know. 

I preferred the colorful mosaic displays of vegetables and fruits, mostly set up in the center of the street.  I'm assuming drivers know which streets are closed to traffic during daylight hours.  Just one more dimension of the crazy driving in this vibrant and jam-packed city.