Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dancing on a Burmese Mountain (Hsipaw: Pt. 1)

This story begins on a train.

A train that, after all things considered, would be deemed unsuitable for travel by American standards and promptly be shut down

A train that would be considered “okay” in 1922.

A train filled with wooden seats partially scratched to oblivion by millions of passengers from  what I imagine it has gathered over its illustrious 10,000 year career.

This train is really, really old.

And yet it moves.

Daily.

Up the gracefully ancient Burmese hills from Mandalay to the central Shan State which is home to the small town of Hsipaw (See-Poe).

PICTURED: Gracefully ancient hills
 But back to the train.

This was maybe the 2nd train I had ever been on. The other that has had the esteemed honor of having me on it, was the Dollywood express, so needless to say, this trip was a bit more strenuous and less Dolly.

[Dolly+Parton+-+Dollywood+Postcard04.jpg]
PICTURED: Gracefully ancient hills

We left the Mandalay station at 4 a.m. The station was alive with several friendly workers and numerous Burmese families and farmers abound with fruit and flowers, ready to make their way back to their small villages, escaping the unusually blockish grid that is Mandalay.

Blocks on blocks on blocks

As the train made its half-confident/half-“oh my God, let’s see how far I get” way through Mandalay, several smells entered the train car. The first that I noticed was of the car itself. It was unique to the situation, but not all together unfamiliar to my senses. It was earthy and sweet. Something akin to a smell that you find in your neighbor’s tool shed, or an attic in the fall that hasn’t seen movement in quite a long time. It wasn’t an overwhelming smell, but persistent none-the-less.

The second smell to embrace my senses was that of busy Mandalay that snuck in through the windows. Outside, people were already awake and off tending to various responsibilities. The smell of fire invaded the train sporadically as wives and workers alike were preparing to start cooking for the day. Diesel (along with the sound of screeching brakes) would also occasionally enter the cabin as giant trucks carrying anything from PVC Pipes to water jugs would make their way through Mandalay more than likely on their way to China.

So as I became more accustomed to these smells, I began to notice all of the noises of the train itself. The deep, resounding “clunks” of the train were strangely pleasing. It was so rhythmic. And ferocious! I don’t feel that I’ve ever used the word “clunk” more appropriately than I am now. I’m talking “clunks” that the Iron Giant would be making as it would be trying to get comfortable on some sort of giant train made for the Iron Giant.

Artist’s rendering of a Burmese train

The sound of this train was commanding. You couldn’t ignore it. It made itself known. As if the train was trying to say, “Like seriously, I know what I’m doing. I’ve been going up this mountain for 20,000 years, quit whining.”

Not wholly inaccurate portrayal 

At this point, as my senses are trying to cope with all the weird imagery that’s popping into my head (i.e. Iron Giant and evil Thomas the Train) reality comes rushing back in the form of icy, cold water.

Literally.

We are currently in Myanmar during the Burmese New Year (Thingyan). If you’re familiar with the Thai New Year (Songkran) and the way it’s celebrated than you have come to an understanding on what Thingyan basically is.

*Insert picture of cultural sensitivity*
Not even going to try to find a picture depicting this, because the asterisked command to find one, to me, is way too funny on its own.

The way that Thingyan and Songkran are celebrated is by dumping ridiculous amounts of water on other people in the hopes that they will in turn throw ridiculous amounts of water on you as well. It’s enormous fun that I will get to later.

However, it seems that the Burmese want to get started as soon as possible, because water began flying into the train through the windows at Four. In. The. Stupid. Morning.

From that point forward, our entire purposes.

Our livelihoods.

Our God given rights as human beings.

The only thing we cared about.

Was making sure we were aware enough and quick enough to throw our windows down before getting soaked by devilishly smart and witty children who were waiting at EVERY SINGLE TRAIN STATION that we stopped at.

So, 3 shirts, 2 ruined books, and 12 hours later, we arrive in Hispaw.

A gorgeously succinct and small town. The tallest “skyscraper” in town is a 7 floor hotel being erected out on the edge of town. The town’s architecture is brilliant. A fantastic juxtaposition of wooden shacks held up by 2x4’s and bamboo poles and small, archaic colonial era houses that have not seen a good day the better part of a century.

These little colonial era houses were wonderfully set up. Usually always open air. No air-conditioning, just (occasionally) small fans and a breeze (occasionally) that would rush in from the street.

Hsipaw Day 2: The Man, The Truck, The Stage

*PARENTAL DISCLAIMER* If you happen to be any of the following:

1)      My parents

I recommend not reading any further, but if you do, God Bless and forgive these trespasses.

The gracious and friendly staff at the guesthouse where we were staying supplied us with a map of Hsipaw on the first day; highlighting all of the popular “must-sees” of Hsipaw. One of these places was a little restaurant called Mrs. Popcorn’s out on the outskirts of the town. So, we decided to make the trek out there.

I would really love to describe the quaintness of this little hole in the wall. Describe the dirt floors and the rickety ceiling. The warm smile of Mrs. Popcorn and the indescribably amazing food.

I would love to do that, but I will be damned if Mrs. Popcorn’s even exists or ever did exist.

I can describe to you, however, how lost we got as we continued to travel north out of Hsipaw and into the countryside filled with nothing but farmland.

At this point, we had been walking for over 2 hours, and we were getting a bit disheartened, so we finally decided to turn around and head back defeated with our heads hanging low.

And then they showed up.

Like greasy, Burmese knights to not only rescue us in that moment, but to save our evening.

In Burma, there are these little things of what I think have tobacco in them called Betal Leaves. They are these tiny leaves wrapped around some sort of tobacco or plant that is bright red. You chew on them, as you do chewing gum or chewing tobacco back in the states, but the bright red centers leave your entire mouth blood red and your teeth stained permanently.

And lo and behold these two “knights” drive up right next to us with their heads hanging out of the window smiling ear to ear with their bright red Betal Leaved mouths.

“MINGALABAR DAI WII!!!” the skinnier one yells as he throws water on us.

Bewildered and now freezing, we stand there and look at them with what I’m convinced is the purest amount of surprise that they have ever seen.

The skinnier one jumps out of the truck and asks plainly, “You go festival?” implying that we must be on our way to some New Year Party out in the country.

Dumbly we respond, “No, Hsipaw!” and the driver looks contemplatively out into the countryside, then turns his head back to us, with that blood red smile of his, points to us and says “I take you to festival, then village, then Hsipaw. 45 minutes. Okay?”

Oh dear reader, you will not believe what I did next.

The child of Jeannie Jones.

The King of Cautious.

The Sultan of Safety.

The Prince of “Eh, I don’t know, guys, I’m probably just gonna go sit over here”

Ladies...

I looked over to Emily and Aisha, my cohorts, and their devilish grins shot right back at me.

And, God help me, I hopped right into that truck with my two friends and these two unknown Burmese men and shot across the Burmese mountain side in the total opposite direction of where I knew a comfortable bed was and where two strange Burmese men were not.

So we try to have a conversation with these 2 guys.

I find out a few things:

1)      The driver’s name is Nigaro (I’m completely convinced that is not even close to his real name)

2)      The second guy’s name is Ratunadok *NOTE: I don’t know Burmese*

3)      And the second guy is apparently a general in the army (at this point, I have no idea if that’s even the least bit true)

4)      They’re hilarious, fun, and friendly.

So, after driving for 15 minutes we arrive at this small stage with blaring music, and about 50 people. There were middle-aged guys dancing wildly, freely, and most importantly, drunkenly in front of this stage. There were middle-aged women watching both endearingly and judgingly from the sidelines. And there were about 15 young Burmese girls in traditional Burmese dress on stage dancing to Korean and Burmese pop music. (If I’ve learned anything in my time in Southeast Asia, it’s what Korean pop music sounds like).

So, we jump out of the truck, and immediately we are rushed to the stage and they all start yelling “DISCO!! DISCO!! DISCO!!” Which is Burmese-English for, “GET ON THAT STAGE AND DANCE!!!!!!”

So all three of us awkwardly get on the stage and look out at the crowd. Roughly 20 drunk dudes are out in the audience dancing their drunk asses off.

So we dance.

It probably doesn’t take too much insight into my life to figure out that I don’t dance.

I have trouble running sometimes.

But I dance.

IMPORTANT CORRECTION: I rhythmically flail and sporadically jump around for a bit.

The crowd goes wild.

I’m a star.

Then the driver and the “general” run up on stage and start dancing with us. Then 3 or 4 more Burmese bystanders join in the fun. So now this stage is crowded with all of these people and then I feel it.

All of this American dance culture that I’ve steadily and forcibly repressed over several years and slowly making its way to my feet and hands.

I am slowly evolving into the estranged, sad dance child of Shakira, Fergie, and Snooki.

And I’m loving it.

I look out to the mob of drunken, sweaty Burmese dudes.

They’re eating it up, so I start clapping.

They clap along with me.

And start yelling victoriously and in celebration, so I run forward and they start shaking my hand and yelling “Hello!” “Thank You” and “Happy New Year” at me.

So after 500 dance minutes (I believe that converts to 8 minutes real time), I get off the stage and people crowd around me with drinks. All sorts of drinks. There’s iced coffee, fruit punch, and beer.

This also indicated an important and total shift in my understanding of what this thing really was.

My “general” friend runs over to me with a beer in hand and points to the label: “For military personnel only”.

I look around.

On the edge of the crowd there are a bunch of dudes in military uniforms and the entire stage is set up in front of a road that leads down to a military base.

Then I look at my “general” friend and start to realize that he is probably an actual general, no “” needed.

Almost. Just less mustache, less hat, and less everything else that is on this man's person.

Then it hits me: My friends and I just crashed some Burmese military party. 

Of course, as this revelation comes over me, our driver and general friend have rounded us up back into the cab of the truck. 

So, we race off again across the countryside to the next village over where we are to drop off the general, who by this point, I am not making this up dear reader, brings out his pistol and hands it to me.

"I'm a general!" He shouts into my ear as I hold on flimsy and awkwardly to his gun. 

Thanks to the tiny amount of knowledge I know about guns, it wasn't loaded because the clip was missing, and thankfully (?) the general reminds me that guns can have bullets in the chamber, so he points the gun out the window and pulls the trigger to show that the gun was completely empty.

As soon as all of the hairs that were standing straight up on my body had decided, reluctantly, to lay back down, I regained some composure and enjoyed the rest of the drive.

We got to the village, said our goodbyes to the general, and made our way back to Hsipaw. 

The three of us (kind of) had a conversation with our driver. 

We talked about Burmese politics and Aung Sun Su Kyi, who is considered the mother of modern Burma, pretty much. He spoke with intense passion about her, as if she was his own mother. He loved Burma deeply. And I think Emily, Aisha, and I did too. In a quick, whirlwind of a romance, the three of us began to fall in love with Burma (particularly Hsipaw).

If you have lasted this far, God bless you. I have undoubtedly taken up too much of your time, but here are some parting words uttered by our driver concerning America that will hopefully make you laugh and might even be just summaries for your understanding of American politics as well:

"Clinton had economy,
Obama is "okay,"
but I LOVE Abraham Lincoln!"

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Rambler

I'm going on 6 weeks here in Argentina. Since I'm becoming accustomed to how things work here, I've decided to dedicate the form of this blog to serve as a representation of the lifestyle here in Argentine: without form, but somehow (and don't ask me how) it works. As such, I've decided to PROPERLY name this little nugget of knowledge "The Rambler."

Brace yourselves.

First of all, I'm late on this blog because my computer broke. When I say broke, I mean instead of showing life when I pressed the "be alive" button it showed me a black screen and made an obnoxious beeping sound every five seconds until I pressed the "be alive" button long enough to make it the "DIE!!" button. I've now resolved the problem, but in involved me spending a hot saturday evening using the edge of a screwdriver that was too big for the screws of my computer. When I finally removed the bottom cover of my computer, I realized just how much I was sweating and just how vulnerable all the little parts of exposed metal were to the sweat bombs I was dropping every 10 seconds. Nerve racking. Nonetheless, all is fixed and I can now press the "be alive" button on my computer without getting a disrespectful response.

Before I get to what should be considered the main point of this blog, I would also like to inform you that today, a Thursday, I have no classes.

WHY?!?!?

Because there's a nationwide strike here and the buses don't run today. YAY I DON'T HAVE CLASS!

Oh, there aren't any busses.. I can't go anywhere.

The good news is that I have a computer that functions AND I have the time (forced upon me) to write this blog.

A prominent theme returns in this blog: I have no pictures to go along with it… BUT I do want to mention a teeeeeeny tiny teeny experience I had here in Argentina that has somehow managed to stay with me.

It's not anything major, but if you know me well you'll understand where I'm coming from.

Last tuesday night was the night before a holiday here. It was also the night before the birthday of my host family brother.

I had soccer practice until 11 that night, and after taking the bus I got home around 12:30. Sure enough, as soon as I walked onto my street I heard the music, saw the lights, and instantly knew that a grand party awaited in my house… My host brother is 12, so when I say grand party I mean there were 30 kids, lots of loud music, and enough cheesy poofs to make this guy extremely happy.

Parties are something I would strongly consider part of the culture here in Argentina. For example, my host brother is 12 and his party lasted until 2 in the morning and then the parents came to pick up their kids. 2 figures here are important: 12 years old, 2 in the morning. 2 O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING!! Here, they like to celebrate a lot of things.

While I could elaborate more on the fact that I had forgotten how good cheesy poofs are (and equally good for your health, I might add), there was something that intrigued me even more about this party.

At one point, a little boy and a little girl walked into the kitchen, the spot wear I had bunkered down in between a pile of cheesy poofs and a dozen hamburgers, and asked me if I was related to Lautaro, my host brother.

I now present this list of why this was important to me:

1. I understood them

2. They couldn't tell that I wasn't from Argentina, meaning I can't REALLY be labeled as "gringo."

3. It initiated a conversation that sparked a large amount of interest… Actually, after I told them I was from the United States and that I was an exchange student, the girl responded, "Really? I thought that was only in the movies?"

The girl's interest soon went away after about ten minutes, but the little boy, Conrado, had no intention on ending the conversation.

side note..

The majority of the people reading this blog know that I work at Camp Arrowhead for Boys in North Carolina every summer (except this summer, still not sure how I'm going to handle that). Contrary to popular belief, I don't just work at Camp in order to Kayak all summer long.

Shocking.. I know.

I work at Arrowhead because it gives me an opportunity to impact kids. I don't mean to sound corny, but there's really no other way to say that I like what I do at Camp because it leaves an impression on kids. Kids come to camp expecting a fun time, and at the end of their session they can say that they did exactly what they wanted.. BUT, if we as counselors do our jobs the way we should, they also leave with an influence that they hadn't had before arriving to Camp.

After about 30 minutes of talking with Conrado, one of the kids was thrown into (or voluntarily entered) the pool. At this point it was about 1 o'clock in the morning and cold. Like every other person at the party, I went outside to see what was going on. Conrado followed me.

I realized that there was nothing to see, and Conrado, doing the same, started again to ask me questions and talk with me about things in Argentina and things in the States. Since we were outside, it was the first time that we were around other people.

This is the part that made me think of Camp. Every kid that walked past us, and I mean EVERY kid, was met eagerly by Conrado, who would go on to tell them, "Mira, él es mi amigo de los Estados Unidos." (Look, he's my friend from the United States).  It happened at least a dozen times. He said that exact phrase to 12 different kids!

I know it's nothing profound; it's nothing life changing. I know that Conrado didn't go back home after that night and rethink his life and decide to try and save the world, but I also know that it serves as an excellent example of the attention that kids desire while they're in their youth. It's not just in the Southeast; it's not just in the United States; it's universal.

In reality, I'm not really sure why I felt compelled to write about it in my blog. I included some things in this blog that are directly related to Argentina (fixing my computer in a way that could have destroyed it rather than make it better, the ENTIRE COUNTRY coming to a halt for an entire day and thus leaving me without classes, etc.), but it fascinates me the amount of interest Conrado had for somebody who he had just met.

If nothing else, it was confirming. The fact that I come to Argentina (some 5000 miles) and I experience all the differences, all the small changes in lifestyle, all the new things, but the thing that has stuck out to me the most isn't the culture, it's how much I enjoy giving attention to somebody who needs it. I find it extremely encouraging to know that I'm experiencing a new culture and that I feel reaffirmed about the type of work I need to do after I graduate.

I apologize if I spoke to much about Arrowhead; I promise that wasn't the point*

*haaaaaaaa

Hasta luego!
Benjamín

Saturday, April 5, 2014

PD: El lenguaje es más complejo que te dije (PS: The language is more complex than I told you)

Stacey Padilla
La Universidad Católica del Uruguay
Montevideo, Uruguay

Después de mi ultima entrada, he pensado en muchas variaciones linguíticas que lo mencioné. Siguen alugunos ejemplos pequeños:


1. No se usa la palabra "aquí" casi nunca. Se usa "acá" para todo. Cuando un profesor llame los nombres de los estudiantes, cada estudiante conteste "acá!" La única vez que oí "aquí" fue en referencia al region ("Aquí en America del Sur..."). Aprendí que "aquí" significa "here" y "acá" "right here."


2. Se usa "docente" en lugar de "profesor."


3. Comida es "rica," no es "sabrosa".


4. Palabras de tecnología muchas veces quedan en inglés: wifi (pronunciado ambos "wee-fee" y "wai-fai"), internet, software, selfie (en serio -- un amigo me dijo que leyó un articulo sobre la invasión del "selfie," y las implicaciónes de usar palabras de inglés).


5. "Tipo." Se usa no sólo para aproximaciones ("Cenamos tipo 22:00"), pero también para precisar la categoría ("sopa tipo casera").


6. "Raro." Algo que no es normal no se llama "extraño", se llama "raro." Todavía estoy aprendiendo la connotación de la palabra...


7. "Desperezarse." Una palabra nueva que me encanta mucho. Refiere al estirarse despues de descanso. Pero! Para diseccionarlo: "des" (un) + "pereza" (lazy) + "se" (oneself). En ingles, desperezarse es "un-lazying oneself"! Qué perfecto!


8. Se escriba la cursiva en una manera diferente. La "p" no necesita el parte redondo! Me confunde durante mis clases...


Termino esta entrada con una grabación corta de mi profesora hablando en la clase "Proceso histórico del Uruguay y la región." 
Haz click para escuchar.


After my last post, I've thought about a lot more linguistic variations than those I mentioned. Following are some small examples:


1. They almost never use the word "aquí" [here]. They use "acá" for everything. When a profesor calls the names of the students, each student answers "acá!" The only time I heard the word "aquí" was in reference to the region ("Here [aquí] in South America..."). I learned that "aquí" means "here" and "acá" "right here."


2. They use "docente" [professor] in place of "profesor" [professor].


3. Food is "rica" [rich, good], not "saborsa" [tasty, good].


4. Often, technology words stay in English: wifi (pronounced both "wee-fee" and "wai-fai"), internet, software, selfie (seriously -- a friend told me that he read an article about the invasion of the "selfie," and the implications of using English words).


5. "Tipo." It's used not only for approximations ("We'll eat dinner "tipo" [around] 10:00"), but also to specify a category or type ("soup of the type that you make at home [homestlye soup]").


6. "Raro." You don't call something out of the ordinary "extraño" [strange, weird], you call it "raro" [strange, weird]. I'm still learning the connotation of the word [strange, weird]...


7. "Desperezarse." A new word that I really enjoy. It refers to stretching after rest.  But! To dissect it: "des" (un) + "pereza" (lazy) + "se" (oneself). In English, desperezarse is "un-lazying oneself"! How perfect!


8. They write cursive differently. The "p" doesn't need the round part! It confuses me during my classes...


I finish this entry with a short recording of my profesor talking in the class "Historic Process of Uruguay and the Region." Click here to listen.





Bon Bini!

Bonaire. Wow, where do I start?

It's been about two weeks that we've been back from that beautiful island and I'm still struggling with how to describe my experiences. I guess I'll start with the most obvious thing from this trip- the trip was all about diving (and no we did not see a shark, which was too bad). We dove so much, so incredibly much and I loved every second of it! There were a couple times that I would be so wiped out I would decline scuba, but for the most part I dove roughly 12 times (I lost count, but I wrote it down somewhere..)
Anyway, diving was the absolute best. Every time I was down there all I could think about was finding an octopus and how I felt as if I was flying. If you've never been scuba diving before you really should learn, it's awesome. Gliding over the reefs was like flying over a whole new world. The closer you got to the reefs the more fish and critters you could see, such as a secretary blenny (which is my favorite!). They burrow in to coral and then stick their heads out and look around, they aren't too keen on you swimming close to them though. Here's what they look like (not my photo though unfortunately).


For the nights and mornings we were generally on our resort called Buddy Dive. They were very sweet to us there (as most of them knew Dr. Unger and Dr. Enz since they've taken groups before). The resort had the best breakfast EVER with things like fresh pineapple, hundreds of fresh croissants and really good oatmeal. It was incredible, and included! So we definitely spent a lot of time at breakfast. Here is a day and night photo of the resort:


So besides diving and looking at incredible things (sea turtles, dolphins, fish, coral) we also did a lot of land stuff like exploring the coral cliffs and looking for birds. Though we did not see the crested cara-cara, one of Bonaire's coolest birds, we did see a hundred birds called Bananaquits which are the cutest things ever. We also explored two of the towns. The main one  (where we stayed) is called Kralendijk and the other is Rincon which we just drove through. Kralendijk is very tourist based and unfortunately we saw not one but two cruise ships. Which was really disappointing as this island was dwarfed by the ship's monstrous size. On the brightside the tourists would go and buy tons of crafts the locals made (who spoke this awesome language called Papiamentu) and the locals would jack their prices just for the cruise ship. It made me feel better about the waste of that ship to see it was at least stimulating their economy.


Big 'ol ship. And we are several blocks away from it.

On that note I guess I'll speak to what the downside to the visit- the amount of trash on the island. It was really sad to visit the coast that wasn't used by the tourists, because there nobody cared about cleaning it up. The rocks were filled with bits of plastic that ranged from tiny slivers to oil containers for cars. The surprising part is that most of it was from other places such as America, the coast of South America and Europe.

A tiny amount of the trash we picked up...

The outskirts of the town of Kralendijk!

On a happier note, we visited the crazier side of the island. By crazy I mean the most intense waves/ocean I have ever seen in my life! The other side of the island (the side no one really dove on) was facing the open ocean- or Europe!- so the currents there were incredible. 


(That's me! In front of a crazy big wave.)

We also visited the salt pans on Bonaire, the slave huts that were rebuilt as a reminder of the part Bonaire played during the slave trade, an old lighthouse, lots of donkeys and lots of birds. Altogether it was an amazingly cool trip! I wish that I could visit again. 
Thank you so much MC for this opportunity! 


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