Tag Archives: Freedom

Berlin – City of Freedom

It’s nearly four PM on a hazy Sunday afternoon as Alex and I walk past one of the top clubs in Berlin. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much – a dilapidated factory, one of many former industrial buildings that birthed Berlin’s underground rave scene in the early 90s.

The party was still going from the night before, as black-clad gothic types stumbled from the club into the hazy afternoon light, their eyes either squinting from the sun or glazed from the club drugs. Even more were lined up to go inside, waiting to get past the notoriously selective bouncer.

“Day-walkers,” joked Alex. Neither of us have ever been into the EDM scene – and certainly not Berlin’s hardcore expression of it.

“Not quite carpe diem,” I added. It was nearly my 29th birthday and I was feeling more mature, as if my years of all-night partying were surely behind me.

By contrast, the scene before us seemed post-apocalyptic. In an overgrown lot, small groups of people sunned themselves on concrete ruins. Down the road, a young guy dangled his feet from the window of his apartment, high on something, blasting Janis Joplin, and smiling blissfully into the sun.

It was hard not to judge it as excessively hedonistic – even nihilistic – as if they were partying like there really was no tomorrow.

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Berlin is a hard nut to crack for many first time visitors. At first glance, it seems dirty, run down, and gritty. In short, it’s completely unlike any other major European capital.

In place of the skyscrapers are Soviet-style architecture from the 1950s. Squatters live in abandoned buildings five minutes from Parliament. Stickers and posters call for political asylum for Edward Snowden. Middle-aged men ride the subway dressed in drag. And a Sunday walk through Friedrichshain reveals said partiers, as well as hundreds more.

But this is what makes Berlin Berlin. It’s a city of freedom. And the key to understanding why Berliners value their freedom lies in the city’s recent history. So in our recent episode, instead of diving straight into where to go and what to do, Alex and I decided to create some context around the Berlin during the Cold War.

After WWII, Germany was occupied and partitioned by the Allied and Soviet Armies. East Germany was communist, occupied by Russians, and part of the Eastern Bloc, while West Germany was capitalistic and part of NATO. This conflict came to a point in Berlin in 1961, when these ideological divisions manifested in a physical wall dividing the city in half.

Its East German builders claimed it was to keep out foreign “fascists” from the west. In reality, it was built to keep it’s subjects in, to prevent them from entering West Berlin’s airport, from where they could fly to the west.

If the wall squeezed East Germans physically, then the secret police (known as STASI) applied the pressure mentally – spying on their citizens, torturing dissents, and encouraging families to betray their kin. They ruled through fear, like a real-life version of an Orwellian distopia.

That Sunday, I walked along the Berlin Wall, trying to imagine how it would have been to live during those times. We traced the wall’s 140km long footprint through Mauer Park, once divided and now one of the city’s largest gathering places. Only 5 of the 302 guard towers remain, standing incongruously against the modern cityscape, like an airport control tower dropped randomly onto a city corner. Without the wall, they make no sense.

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The same could be said for Berlin today – without knowing its history of oppression, it’s hard to grasp Berlin’s love of freedom. Tolerance replaces the bigotry of National Socialism. Street art brings life and community to a wall that once brought only death and division. Snowden’s struggle makes him a hero to those who remember life under the STASI. And all-night partying sure beats having a curfew.

Alex and I didn’t have time to dive into the party scene, partly because filming is strictly prohibited inside. What happened inside remained a mystery to me. I’d only heard wild rumors – most of them revolving around huge orgies happening in the dark corners of the clubs.

So on my last night, I decided not to judge. I met a local girl (thanks Tinder) who invited me to meet her at midnight in a club housed in what seemed like rickety shacks squeezed between dilapidated factories and a bridge. It felt like place where vampires would hang out, and admittedly lot of people were dressed in black.

It wasn’t my scene, and for a moment I decided to leave. Then I saw her wave to me from across the room – even cuter than her profile pictures. I bought us a round of drinks and commented that there were a lot of people here for a Sunday night.

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“This is nothing. It’s early. You should see it on the weekend – people come Friday and don’t leave until Sunday afternoon.”

I stifled a yawn and asked her how late she was staying.

“Noon,” she said,

I told her I normally don’t stay out that late, that I had a plane to catch the following day so I couldn’t be out until dawn.

“Suit yourself,” she said, snapping her clutch closed and leading me out on the dance floor, where I found myself surrounded by the same crowd that I’d seen earlier that day. Earlier, I’d judged them for wasting their day. My early rising gave me a sense of superiority, as if I were getting more done. Accomplishing more. Making more progress.

Now I was among them, trying not to look like a total douche as I attempted to adapt my American bump-and-grind dance moves to the scene.

My date noticed, and we both laughed. I changed the subject, and asked her why they didn’t allow filming in the clubs.

“Because here it doesn’t matter what you believe, how you dress, who you love – anyone is free to be who they are, to live how they wish. It’s a place of freedom, and recording would take away from that.”

I checked the time. My flight was leaving in 12 hours. If I left now I could get my eight hours, maybe even send off a few important emails before I left. But what would that really accomplish?

“Still thinking about leaving?”

“No,” I said, putting away my phone. “I can stay longer. I’m free.”

Falconry, Freedom and Nomads in Kazakhstan

The Vagabrothers discover the nature of freedom from a falconer, a pack of yurt-dwelling nomads and a man with a gun.  Appeared on MSN Travel UK on 17 Oct, 2013.

It wasn’t until after we’d left the yurt that our guide Alexander told us the nomads had wanted to slaughter a horse and cook us dinner.

“I would have told you in the moment,” he said as our driver Sasha drove the 4×4 through a small stream. “But I thought you might say yes, and then you’d have had to stay until all the meat was eaten – maybe a week.”

The nomads’ vodka was still warm in our bellies and we laughingly thanked Alexander for his concern.

“In any case, it is better that we left,” continued Alexander, looking towards the sunset as Sasha turned down the road into the darkening valley. “These men, they are men of the open land. They know no rules.”

Sasha pulled a black pistol from his right pocket, returned it to his tote bag, and drove to Almaty in silence.

Read the full story on MSN Travel UK.

Deja Vu: Buses & Hitchhiking Across Aragon

This morning I decided to leave Barcelona and head north to visit my good friend Griffin in the Basque Country. I felt listless in Barcelona. It had been over two weeks since I’d stepped off the ship, and I’d been bouncing around Italy and Spain ever since. In Barcelona I’d been in a 6-bed dorm for a week when one of my roommates broke open my safe and stole part of my summer’s wages. I felt betrayed and alone, and I yearned to be with a friend I could trust in a city that felt familiar.

I phoned Griffin and told him I was coming to San Sebastian, our home away from America. I took a bus out of Barcelona and immediately pulled out my laptop and put on a movie as we drove along the base of the Pyrenees. All morning I had been meditating on the balance between freedom and solitude so I watched Into the Wild, the true story of a college graduate who leaves his friends and family behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness by himself.

Instead of finding existential truths in solitude, he ends up eating poisonous berries and dies alone. I watched the film with rapture, making all the inevitable comparisons between his nomadic experience and mine. As the protagonist lay dying, he forces his emaciated fingers grab a pen and write one last message: “Freedom is only real when shared.”

The bus stopped just as the film finished. I looked out the window and felt deja-vu. I recognized our location, desolate truck stop about twenty miles outside of Zaragoza, in the dry foothills of Aragon. As I alighted and felt the warm, dry air coming off the bald brown hills, for a moment I felt I was somewhere off the 395 in California, taking a pit stop with my family on the way to Mammoth Lakes.

I had been here before, traveling in the other direction in another set of circumstances. We were surrounded by semi-trucks from across Europe, their drivers taking naps in the cabins behind the wheel. I saw myself from 22 months ago, as a dust-covered English teacher hitchhiking from San Sebastian to Barcelona. I had walked up to the truck doors and asking the drivers if they could give a humble traveler a lift towards Barcelona. I had nodded patiently after polite refusals in Czech, Hungarian, French, Spanish and German before a car picked me up and raced me towards Barcelona.

It seemed like I was a different person then. Had I really changed so much? I remember the decision to set out hitching quite clearly. I had wanted to escape society and be on my own. I had been settled as an English teacher in San Sebastian for over a month and a half, and I had been so busy making friends that I had yet to leave the city to explore Spain – a long time by my standards. I had felt my youthful restlessness giving way to stability, maturity and the responsibility of work. I was starting to put down roots and I felt the urge to move. I bought a map of Iberia and imagined adventures between my home on the northern coast and the distant towns of Seville, Lisbon, and Barcelona.

I jumped at the first opportunity – a four day weekend, plenty of time for adventure. I bid farewell to my roommates and walked out my door to the gas station on the outskirts of town. I held a cardboard sign in my hands – BCN. After an hour of talking to drivers, I got a ride to Pamplona.

It had been a trip to momentarily escape from the life I was building in San Sebastian. I was sharing an apartment with seven other people, and though I was enjoying their company, I felt I didn’t have a moment to myself. I yearned the solitude of the road, the emptiness of Spain’s meseta in which I hoped to hear the truths of life so often muffled by the chaos of the cities and the murmur of friends.

It had taken me two days to reach the gas station where I now stood, almost two years later. I had waited nearly six hours to get a ride out of Pamplona. My first lift took me only 20 kilometers. By dusk, I found myself standing on a thin piece of shoulder between an empty two lane highway and acres of vacant farmland. In the emptiness of the meseta, I’d listened for the words of wisdom I’d sought. I only heard trucks passing by without slowing down. I smelt manure, I felt hungry and tired, and I wondered why I hadn’t just taken the bus to Barcelona.

Two years later, I smiled looking back on that moment. Despite all the impractical romanticism of that adventure, I’d finally found a ride with a semi truck whose driver told me he’d take me all the way to Barcelona in one shot, but I told him I’d wanted to see Zaragoza. When he said he couldn’t get off the highway with his 18-wheeler, I insisted on being dropped off on the edge of a six-lane freeway at midnight and hiking between the off-ramps through the bush into the center of town. It had been my own, more modest attempt at going into the wild.

This time I’d elected to take the bus for 30€. But I hadn’t hitchhiked then to save cash. I’d done it for the adventure, to open up the possibilities waiting between A-B, chance encounters I knew I could would not find in my assigned seat on the tourist bus. That adventure turned out to be the first of many larger steps, culminating in my decision to pack up my life in Spain, cut myself loose completely and try to work as a sailor on a ship sailing around the world.

It made me think about what had changed within me since then. Perhaps the quiet emptiness of the sea had reminded me of the joys of coming into port, to the warmth of civilization and company. Maybe after so many wild adventures, the restlessness of youth was finally leaving my bones.

I felt happy with today’s decision. The first time I’d passed through this station, I was fleeing society for the open road. Now I was beginning to appreciate the necessity of company and the folly of solitude for it’s own sake.

The bus driver honked the horn and we re-boarded the bus. I looked back on the truck stop, doubting that my hitching days were over, but promising that the next time I stick out my thumb, I’ll do so in the company of another kindred soul.

I discuss Freedom with Athena (Great Wall of China)

I the train journey from Lhasa to Beijing took two days.  The train traveled across all of China, from the Tibetan Plateau to the mountains of northern China, past the terracotta warriors in Xi’an and onwards to Beijing.  The Beijing municipality is roughly the size of Belgium, so it took a while to get to the center of town.  I was awed by Beijing’s size, impressed by its modernity, and disgusted by its polluted air.  I fell sick with a swine-flu-like illness within a few days.  I blame the air.

Though I had enjoyed discussing politics with the Chinese on my train, I still couldn’t see eye to eye with government.  As I walked through Beijing, I allowed my political beliefs to overshadow Beijing’s cultural gems.  When I saw the Forbidden City, I cynically remarked that it was only spared from the Cultural Revolution because Mao wanted to use it for his own purposes.  When I stood in Tiananmen Square, the largest in the world, my appreciation was dulled by the memories of how the government squashed the 1989 pro-democracy riots.

Then I went to see Mao’s embalmed corpse, which is displayed in Tienanmen Square like Ho Chi Minh’s in Hanoi and Lenin’s in Moscow’s Red Square.  I was a bit disappointed by Mao; Uncle Ho’s mausoleum outdid Mao’s in almost every way – a better building, better atmosphere, better guards, and a better looking corpse.  I still have one more embalmed communist dictator to see in Moscow, so I will reserve my final judgment until after I see Lenin…but so far Uncle Ho is in the lead.

But my journey was almost over, and I needed time to think.  I needed a walkabout.  I hiked onto the Great Wall at sunset and spent a night in one of its watchtowers.  I thought about my journey and I tried to put everything into perspective.

As I stared out over the hills towards Mongolia, a white ghost appeared high above the Great Wall.  What was this apparition?  The ghost of King Hamlet?  

“No, you fool, it’s me, Athena, Greek goddess of Wisdom.  Why do we have to go through this every time?  Ah, never mind…but tell me, how do you feel now that your Odyssey is almost complete?”

“I feel pretty good, but, where the heck have you been, Athena?  I  have needed your help so many times in the last few months!  Why didn’t you warn me that Delusion tricked me into buying that piece-of-junk Minsk motorbike?  Or was it Ares that killed my bike just to spite me?  And why have you given me no guidance in China, the most confusing country I have visited thus far?”

“The gods had nothing to do with those mishaps.  You are just too stingy – if you wanted to make it to Hanoi, maybe you should have worried less about saving money, and more about buying a bike that would last for the whole journey.”

“Wait…you mean the gods weren’t even involved in that part of the journey?”

“No, we have been preoccupied on Mt. Olympus.  MTV started filming a reality TV show and Aphrodite has been hogging the camera, kissing all of Ares’ enemies just to cause drama.  And after what she did with Dionysus… Oh, Zeus!  Ares is on a warpath!  He has been throwing spears all across Olympus and crying his eyes out to the camera.  The MTV producers are eating it up, but we have all been too busy to worry about you.”

“Wow… I had no idea.  All this time I was blaming you guys for my misfortunes.”

“Nope, your misfortunes result from your own poor judgment.  You must take some responsibility for your actions.  There is a reason why few people sacrifice goats to Zeus anymore; you can’t depend on the Olympians for everything.  But tell me, what have you learned since we last spoke in Cambodia?”

“Well, Vietnam was incredible.  On my motorbike, I tasted true freedom for the first time in my life.”

Aphrodite smiled at me and said, “There’s nothing in the world like total freedom, is there?  Let me tell you something, Mark: every soul is born free, but over the years most people make sacrifices and comprises and most trade away their freedom before they are even aware of its existence.  It’s not to say that these compromises are wrong, or that true freedom is better than having a high paying job and owning a nice home – but you rarely can have both together.  If you want to regain that freedom again, you must walk through life more deliberately, you must be careful about the sacrifices you make.  You made a sacrifice when you abandoned the Minsk, didn’t you?”

“Hey, that’s a sore subject…I loved that bike.  And I didn’t really have a choice: my visa was going to expire, the repair costs were mounting and I couldn’t cross into China with the bike…I had to ditch the Minsk.”

“Still, you made a sacrifice.  There is a reason why most of the world is not traveling the globe by motorbike.  Most people in the developing world don’t have the money, and people in the rich world have the money, but most don’t have the time.  You are quite lucky to have both the time and the money.”

“Jeez, Athena, you are making me feel guilty.  I know that the average person in Burma can’t travel like I do…not even many middle class in Vietnam or China have ventured past their borders.  But the truth is that we have different opportunities than those in the developing world.  How can I explain to a Cambodian farmer that a low wage in America is enough to live like a king in Cambodia?  Are you saying that I should be doing something else with my money?”

“Absolutely not, Mark.  Each time you have discussed traveling with the locals in Asia, what did they tell you?  They said that they wished they could do the same thing, right?  So don’t feel guilty about your relative opportunity, take advantage of it.  Travel because you can.  Don’t forget that you live with a freedom most of these people will never know.”

“You are right.  And being in China has made me appreciate my freedom even more.  After being totally free on my motorbike, it was difficult to conform to the crowds in China.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “You can’t spend all of your life hiding on up the Great Wall, Mark.  You have to return to society eventually.  Remember what Emerson said: ‘It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’”

“No, that’s not what I mean.  Sure, never it was almost impossible to find solitude and the government makes it clear that you must conform to their strict rules.  But what really bothered me was the censorship and all the security cameras on every corner!  I can’t find any information about the Dalai Lama or Tiananmen Square, I can’t even access the Facebook or most blogs!  The Chinese are fed propaganda and what’s worse is that they all believe it!  When discussing politics, everyone just regurgitates the Party Line and they claim it is best for their society to censor the internet!  It’s crazy!”

“Is it really that crazy for them to think that way?  Perhaps it’s their culture, have you thought about that, Mark?”

“Ha!  You mean it’s part of their culture to cower before Big Brother?  I don’t follow.”

“No.  You are viewing China through Western eyes, judging China with Western values.  Individual freedom, a social contract between governments and their people, these are principles of the European Enlightenment.  Democracy comes from ancient Greece, not ancient China.  Chinese culture is shaped more by the principles of Confucianism, where respect for superiors is paramount and a harmonious society is the overall goal, not individual satisfaction.  The Chinese might see your individualism as rude and selfish.  You must be aware of your own biases.”

“Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree that the Chinese government can keep their people in the dark, does it?”

“No, of course not.  If you want to spend your whole life searching for the truth, so be it – fight the good fight.  Tell the world about what you have seen in Tibet and Burma.  But just don’t call the average Chinese ignorant simply because they would rather trade a little bit of freedom for social harmony.  Try to understand where they are coming from.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way; maybe I have been too judgmental.  I guess the average Chinese is just trying to get by.”

“Mark, twenty years ago, most people in Beijing were wearing blue Mao suits and riding bicycles down dirt roads.  Now look what the Communist Party has built for them.  Beijing is a thoroughly modern city.  It just hosted the Olympics, and China won the whole thing.  Does it surprise you that they are willing to trust what the Party says is good for them?”

“I guess not.  But I could never think that way; my eyes have been opened, and I can’t close them anymore.”

“Good for you.  Now enjoy your freedom.  But, hey, I just got a text from Dionysus – more drama on Mt. Olympus…I gotta get back to Greece.  It’s time to say goodbye, Mark”

“Wait!  Is there anything else I should know before I get on the Trans-Siberian?”

“Not really.  If you have made it this far, I think you can handle the rest.  But I will say that you have a wild imagination…you dreamed up all of the Greek gods, even me.  And you are dreaming as we speak, which seems to be what you do best.  Now enjoy the rest of your sleep and good luck on the Trans-Siberian.”

And with that, my relationship with the gods of Ancient Greece came to an abrupt end.  I awoke the next morning and watched the sun rise over the Great Wall.  I was on my own with no more help from the Greek gods.  I headed back to Beijing, organized my affairs and prepared to leave Beijing, to leave China, to leave Asia behind.

Thoughts on Tibet (Train from Lhasa-Beijing)

The next morning I arrived at the newly constructed Lhasa Train station and boarded the Lhasa-Beijing train, the world’s highest train and a remarkable feat of engineering.  The train is completely sealed and pressurized, and in case you feel lightheaded, oxygen masks are provided…which might come in handy now that Mitori was gone.

The train station is massive, but more than anything it is permanent.  It is going nowhere, which is exactly what Beijing wants the Tibetans to think about the Chinese.  It looks like a massive safety lock chaining Tibet to Greater China.

I boarded the train and sat amongst the other passengers, almost all of them ethnic Chinese.  I saw the Chinese in a different light than I had seen them while in Tibet.  The soldiers who had been guarding Lhasa’s streets were now relaxed, laughing, and flirting with girls.  The Chinese tourists I had so frequently criticized offered me food and made conversation.  I spent most of my time watching all of China pass by my window and writing down everything you just read.  I thought a lot about Tibet.  This is what I have concluded for the time being.

China’s claim to Tibet is essentially a historical one.  Its claims of cultural and political influence stem from these centuries of interaction with Tibet.  It true that Tibet has been both a vassal state and a colony of China for many years.  Over those years, China’s strong culture inevitably influenced Tibet.

But Tibet is a distinct culture.  No one in China eats yak meat. No one in China, or anywhere else in the world, drinks yak butter tea.  No Beijinger would ever wear yak-skin jackets.  Mud brick houses are not seen in Shanghai.  Tibetans have their own language, religion, traditions, and their own way of life that are all distinct from those of China.  So the Chinese claims to China are at tenuous at best.

The Chinese destroyed all the legitimacy of their rule once they decided to assert it with force.  If the Tibetans are indeed Chinese, why not ask them?  Beijing knows what the answer will be – a resounding NO.

Instead, Chinese rule has been cemented by force.  Mao tried to break Tibetan’s spirit by destroying Lhasa’s temples, but the Tibetans prevailed.  The government bans pictures of the Dalai Lama, but he still offers hope to his people.  Soldiers might stand on every corner, but the Tibetans are indomitable.

Though they won’t admit it, the Chinese know that their rule lacks legitimacy.  You can see it on the faces of the soldiers.  Despite their daily propaganda, their eyes betray their doubts about the situation.  Maybe they are just surprised to feel so out of place in what is supposedly part of China.

If the Chinese were welcome on the streets of China they wouldn’t need soldiers on every street corner.  If the Chinese version of history was correct, they wouldn’t need to jam it down the throats of every Tibetan student.  But these are things the Chinese need to do, and therefore, in my opinion, they are not welcome, they are illegitimate occupiers, and they should leave Tibet immediately.

The Chinese know that Tibetans have a distinct culture, which is precisely why they are attempting to dilute that culture by drowning it in a sea of Chinese settlers and tourists from around the world.  The new train has forever bound Tibet to China.  It is irreversible.

So what does this mean for the future?  Will Tibet ever be independent?  In my opinion, it will not.  Even the Dalai Lama has stopped asking for independence, and now asks only for autonomy.  Autonomy is more realistic, but it probably won’t be granted until the Han Chinese are the majority in Tibet, once the Dalai Lama is dead and the argument is moot.

It is a sad conclusion to make, but it makes me wonder if such an outcome was not inevitable.  In 1950, Tibet was a small, defenseless, medieval society living in one of the most important geopolitical areas of the world.  If China hadn’t taken it, India might have, therefore China took it.  Britain did the same thing in 1904 only because it thought the Russians were already in Tibet.  This is geopolitics.

But we are not in 1904 and in this modern world we are able to communicate via mass mediums.  In 1904, an average citizen would be unable to spread mass awareness about Tibet, but those of you reading this now are now a bit more aware of the situation. Mass communication is only hope for situations such as this.

Spreading awareness helps, but I wish I could do more.  But what am I to do?  Drive to Langley, VA, and ask the CIA to ship a bunch of guns to Kathmandu so we can organize a rebellion in Tibet?  The CIA already tried to intervene, and the intervention failed.  This matter is now left to either Tibetans or diplomats.

So for now, I spread awareness.  Hopefully, one day, enough people will know about the situation and the Chinese government will be forced to bow to international opinion and remove its troops from Tibet.  But regardless of what happens, one thing is certain: it will never be the same Tibet it once was, ever again.

Tibet – First Impressions (Lhasa, Tibet)

The most memorable aspect of Tibet is the sky.  The sky in Tibet is as blue and capacious as an ocean.  When I arrived in Tibet I felt as if I had landed on another planet, a magical land of brown hills hanging upside-down over the calmest of seas.

I say the sky is simply ‘blue’ because the sky embodies every hue within the color blue.  It spans from the darkest blue of the deepest ocean to a blue so light it looks as if the winds have blown all the color clear over the Himalayas into and into Nepal, leaving the mountains alone and naked in the empty sky.

It is, of course, the same sky that smiles down upon Paris, New York or Tokyo, but in Tibet it’s different.  You are so close to the sky, the sun and the nothingness of outer space that you develop a special relationship with the sky.  You see it free of the pollution which blankets it elsewhere in the world; you see it unblemished in its purest form.  After a week in Tibet, you feel as if you somehow know the sky better.

And no city in the world knows this sky better than Lhasa.  Lhasa is the capital of Tibet, and if it were still a free country it would be the highest capital in the world.   Lhasa was the starting point of my eight-day journey across Tibet to the foot of Mount Everest and back, and I spent three days there exploring the city and adjusting to the altitude.

I first saw Tibet as my plane glided over the brown, dry Tibetan Plateau, over green pastures of grazing sheep, as the ground rose closer and closer to the plane until our wheels hit the tarmac.  A wave of smiles swept across the plane – Hello, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tibet. 

Tibet surprised me in many ways, initially by its terrain.  I thought Lhasa would be a snowy, inaccessible village perched atop a cliff, reachable only by parachute, but it actually lies within fertile valley bordered by barren hills.

But I was more surprised by the overwhelming presence of the Chinese military.  I knew that China occupied Tibet, but I did not understand precisely what that entailed.  The airport was camouflaged, the runway was packed with fighter jets and helicopters, and the perimeter was enclosed by barbed wire fences and guarded by soldiers and jeeps.  I departed the plane, collected by bag, and waited for my fellow tour-mates.

First came Kevin, a farmer from New Zealand who had recently sold his farm and took off traveling through Central, South and East Asia.  He was followed by Tripp from Cologne, who had just finished teaching German in Hanoi for three years.  And lastly, Mitori, a quiet smiling 26-year old Japanese girl who sold “magic crystals” at a mall in Tokyo.  For better or for worse, the four of us planned to travel to Everest and back.

Once we were all assembled we walked out to meet our driver and guide, who, according to new Chinese regulations, was required to accompany us for every moment of our journey to prevent us from getting too familiar with the Tibetans.

The Chinese wanted us to have an insulated, picture-snapping experience and nothing more.  A politically-minded 23 year old backpacker with a head full of questions and a pen full of words was the last thing they wanted.  Too bad.  I was coming, and I was curious.

I expected our guide to be a nosy party hack who would lecture us on the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet and follow us to the bathroom to ensure we weren’t discussing “freedom” and “democracy” at the urinals.

Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find a smiling Tibetan wearing sunglasses and exuding a mellow, hippy vibe.  Our guide turned out to be an indispensable source of information and our only legal contact with the Tibetan people.  Over the next week he showed me many aspects of the Chinese occupation and shared with me the perspective of a Tibetan living under Chinese military rule.  He risked imprisonment by talking politics with us, so I will change his name.  Let’s call him Ferguson.

Ferguson took us to the 4×4 Land Cruiser that would take us to Everest and we headed off for Lhasa.  Lhasa was 45 minutes down a heavily guarded two-lane highway.  Every 200 meters we passed small groups of soldiers standing back to back with automatic rifles their hands.  A convoy of military trucks passed the other direction, escorted by a half dozen police cars who’s flashing sirens cried wolf across the peaceful valley on the roof of the world.

I remarked that the military buildup seemed excessive, that I saw no threat warranting such a large deployment of soldiers.  Ferguson told me that the Chinese were particularly nervous at the moment because of the race riots in neighboring Xinjiang that had so far left 150 Uighurs and a number of Han Chinese dead.  I had been in a Muslim restaurant only a few days before and I had seen the police check the papers of all the workers, question them for 30 minutes, then take their pictures and go off into the night, leaving humiliation and resentment in their wake.  Beijing had blocked the Facebook after noting how it helped organize anti-government protests against Iran’s recent disputed election.

YouTube was blocked last year after the Dalai Lama began broadcasting messages to Tibetans from his exile in India.  In March 2008, as all the world’s eyes were on China in the lead-up to the Olympics, the Tibetans took to the streets to protest their occupation.  The Chinese responded swiftly and, some say,  brutally.

Ferguson said that they were forced to stay inside, that soldiers at anyone who put their head out their window, that they beat innocent people mercilessly and killed 3,000 Tibetans.  The Dalai Lama says 400 people died.  The Chinese contend that 22 Chinese and one Tibetan died, and they were innocent Chinese shopkeepers killed by an angry mob.

Finding The Truth was going to be difficult.  The Chinese were only going to tell me the Party Line and Ferguson seemed inclined to exaggerate his stories a bit.  I decided to take all opinions with a grain of salt, both Chinese and Tibetan.

Motorcycle Diaries, Day One (HCHM -> Mui Ne, Vietnam)

Three Challenges – Challenge One – Challenge Two – Challenge Three

I know what you are thinking.  Motorcycle Diaries? You mean like Che Guevara?  Haha, yes, cliché isn’t it?  Or should I say, cli-Ché?  (This cheesy joke is hereby patented by Mark Ayling).

Well, if Che Guevara had ridden across South America on this Russian-made piece of crap, he probably would have switched sides in the Cold War and swapped the Minsk for a Harley Davidson.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I knew it was going to be a difficult first day, and I saw three sizable challenges ahead of me:

  • Challenge Number One – Get The Minsk started
  • Challenge Number Two – Successfully Leave Saigon and Get to Highway 1
  • Challenge Number Three – Avoid death and rain and drive down Highway 1 to Mui Ne beach. 

It would not be easy but I was determined to make it.  I packed up my bag, strapped it on the janky luggage rack, put on a helmet, sunglasses, and riding scarf, cracked my knuckles, and confronted my first challenge of the day.

Challenge Number One – Get The Minsk Started

Starting The Minsk required a special touch, a knowledge of which buttons to push, which levers to adjust, which pedals to pressure at which times and to what degree.  I lacked this touch.

The hot Saigon sun crept steadily in the sky, and as it reached its zenith I had yet to successfully start The Minsk.  I was sweating, I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was sure I had been duped by that slippery Limey.  It was reaching an ungodly temperature, and I knew I had to reach Mui Ne before the late afternoon, for the monsoon had begun in earnest and each afternoon the sky poured down an ocean of water upon the fields of southern Vietnam.  If I did not get the bike started soon, I would either die of heatstroke in Saigon or slide off the road and die in a tropical storm on Highway one, thereby failing Challenges 2 and 3.

I called over a motorcycle taxi driver and asked him to start it.  He got it first try.

Challenge Number 1: Completed!

Challenge Number 2: Successfully Leave Saigon and Get to Highway One

Emboldened by my successful completion of Challenge Number One, I charged onward to Challenge Number 2…Excuse me, Mr. Motorcycle Taxi Driver, would you please escort me from here to Highway One?

You might laugh, but I tell you this was the biggest Challenge of the day, even with the guide!

Saigon is a crowded city and it sprawls outward for miles in each direction.  The people drove like madmen.  Attempting to avoid collisions and simultaneously navigate was impossible.

Every intersection was a free-for-all, and I had about thirty intersections to cross before I got to the highway.  At a four-way stop, the light would turn green and then all four sides would go at once.  Everyone would approach the center at the same speed, all would arrive at once, and then the bold drivers would begin weaving their way through the mess.  Somehow, no one completely stopped, no one put their foot down and no one crashed.  I just plowed right through the center of it all, barely able to co-ordinate my clutch, accelerator, and brake, let alone avoid hitting anyone.  I almost crashed four times in the span of five minutes.

The chaos did not stop there.  Rules were being broken everywhere.  It was a mockery of Western Law and Order, a physical repudiation of the French’s intended purpose of Saigon’s grand boulevards.  As I idled at the traffic light, a motorcycle would zip around the corner to my right against traffic, then continue along the curb for another fifty meters or so before cutting right across the street and back into his proper lane.  And this was only at the four-way intersections; the round-abouts were another matter entirely.

Somehow I managed to follow the moto driver through this mess and after 45 minutes I was on the outskirts of Saigon.  I jumped off my bike in excitement and went over to pay the driver his due…and accidentally allowed the bike to stall.  Back to Challenge Number 1 again.

Challenge Number Three – Avoid Death and Rain and Drive Down Highway 1 to Mui Ne Beach

The highway looked only marginally easier to navigate than the roads of Saigon.  As trucks, cars, motorcycles and tour buses zoomed past me, I stood on the side of the road and decided to sacrifice a large goat in Zeus’ honor.  Oh mighty Zeus, high on Mt. Olympus, please spare me for one day.  Do not bring the storm cloud upon my head, do not put obstacles in my path.  Just make my first day on The Minsk somewhat easy.  I finished the sacrifice, wiped the blood from my hands, restarted the bike (after twenty tries), and delved into the swirling traffic on Highway 1.

Highway 1 is much like Highway 1 in California; it traces the coast along the South China Sea and connects all the beach cities from Saigon to Hanoi.  It supposedly held incredible scenery and life-threatening traffic.  As I stared out over smoggy suburban Saigon, I could only see the latter.

There appeared to be a system on the highway, unlike the roads in Saigon.  All the motorbikes were keeping to the right shoulder, so I followed the other bikes and moved with the flow.  Cars whipped past us, minivans rocketed by, massive lorries stumbled and chugged along, and enormous double-decker VIP Tourist buses whizzed by at Mach 1, honking their horns and overtaking dozens of bikers at once.

The bus drivers were crazy – they were driving their machines like they were Subaru WRXs in a rally-car race.  Often, a tour bus traveling in the opposite direction would pass a slower bus, swinging into our lane, squeezing the cars into the bike lane, the bikes onto the roadside, and the roadside vendors into the rice paddies!  And the only warning you received was a deafening HOOOONNNNNKKKKK!!!!!!

Ah, the horns.  In Vietnam, a vehicle’s horn varies in pitch according to the vehicle’s size and its ability to end your life abruptly.  While my bike squeaks a high-pitched Beeeep! Beeep!, the massive lorries belch a frighteningly deep growl, and for a moment you believe that, by some work of the gods, you are about to be passed by the Titanic! 

On top of this all, the roads are pocked with patches of gravel, dirt, and water, around which you must navigate while fending off hundred of Evil Canevil wannabes and dozens of ocean liners.  And once you think you’ve mastered that, then a Vietnamese bus passenger will chuck the remainder of his noodles out the window of his bus and right onto your head!

But despite all the hazards, my first day on the bike was one of the best experiences so far.  Once I left the city behind, the traffic dissipated and I sped past rice paddies and mountains strewn with boulders, then over rivers and canals to the fishing villages along the coast.  I passed through Phan Thiet, a charming seaside village with aging buildings which looked over the brightly colored fishing boats anchored in the water below.

As the sun set over the mountains to the west, I traced gorgeous beaches to my right.  The South China Sea appeared in the late afternoon light, windblown but inviting nonetheless.  The beaches were lined with palm trees for miles, and to my left marvelous sand dunes fell down to the side of the road.

But above all, I enjoyed my liberation.  Freedom from pre-planned itineraries, freedom from bargaining bus drivers, freedom from tuk tuk drivers, and freedom from my fellow travelers.  After months of complaining about being stuck on the tourist track, I had finally done something about it.

For the first time in my four and a half months of traveling, perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt truly free.

Free, yes, but also tired.  I had knocked out all three challenges with no problems and I was in need of some relaxation.  Mui Ne fit the bill nicely.  It was an 11 kilometer beach that curved in a large crescent, completely covered in coconut trees, fishing boats and luxury resorts.  I found one of the few budget places on the beach and spent a day swinging in a hammock, reading Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (highly recommended summer reading), and trying to avoid death by falling coconut.

I took advantage of The Minsk and explored the nearby fishing villages.  Without The Minsk, I would have stayed within walking distance of my guesthouse, but instead I went into local neighborhoods and sampled local seafood on the street.  Of course, I still lacked “the touch” for getting my bike started, so after spending two hours trying to start it in three different places, I decided to save the bike riding for longer distances.

After two nights, I packed up my bags and hit the road again.  Next stop, up the coast to the beach town of Nha Trang.

Thoughts on Burma, Retrospective

My visa would expire in a little over a week, so it was time to think about getting back to Thailand. The country is hermetically sealed from its neighbors, the only way in or out is via airplane from Yangon to Bangkok.
March 27th was National Armed Forces Day, so the government shut down the internet across the entire country for a full week under the pretext of needing to repair the infrastructure. How convenient.   I couldn’t book my plane ticket until March 30th, and by then all the flights were either booked or ridiculously expensive. The only way to get out of Burma on the cheap was to high-tail it back to Yangon and catch at flight on April 1st, in just two days.
I had to sacrifice many sights, but it was the only way. Seeing all of Burma in one trip is impossible, it is simply too large and too difficult to navigate. I arrived in Yangon late at night, with only 8 hours until my early morning flight. The next morning I departed from Yangon and waved goodbye to Burma, that curious little country trapped in the past.
So after three weeks in Burma, what were my conclusions? I came to Burma to gain a better understanding of the political situation, so what had I learned?
Burma is struggling, and there is no reason why it should be. The government is stifling the economy with their incompetence. There is so much potential for Burma to be a prosperous country, but the government’s sole aim is self-preservation. In order to hold onto power they subjugate their citizens and spend the country’s money on warfare. They shoot monks, they arrest dissenters and they try to keep their people ignorant of the truth.
The Moustache Brothers told me how the government systematically rapes the Karen people, but I think they are raping the entire country. This is their mentality, simply a selfish, insatiable desire to extract everything of value from the country, no matter the price. They are cutting down the trees, sucking the oil out of the ground, digging up rubies, selling opium, and even enslaving their own people to build roads and railways across the country. Then they ship it all to China at rock-bottom prices in exchange for the diplomatic aegis of China’s UN Security Council seat.
And despite all this, the country is completely destitute. The roads are in shambles. The buses are falling apart. The sky is clouded with pollution. They can’t even supply electricity. Where the hell is all the money going? The people live in wooden shacks! The only way to make a decent living is to abandon your scruples and work for the government, or to get lucky and work in tourism.
But tourism is a fickle business. This year they claim tourism has shrunk to 25% its normal level. Taxi drivers have no business. Hotels are empty. Tour guides stand idle. Furthermore, you run the risk of arrest if you talk politics. I went to see a historical sight in Hsipaw only to learn that it was closed to tourists – the groundskeeper had been arrested by the government for “giving misinformation to foreigners”, and his wife closed down the business to avoid any problems. It’s crazy.
But what happens if they get independence? Hopefully The Lady will be able to unite these diverse ethnic groups behind the banner of a Free Burma. But what if she is assassinated? Without a unifying figure I think this place would descend into brutal civil war. When I look at the geography of Myanmar, I see the seeds of civil war: the Burmese majority bring few resources to the table, and the minorities in the hills have a lion’s share of the natural wealth. Why should they sacrifice this to the Burmese? Why not keep it for themselves, after all the Burmese military has done to them? The minorities have the resources to fuel a revolution. I pray this scenario never plays out, but I know peace and unity will not come easily.
These are my thoughts on Burma. They deserve to be free and they would profit from trade and interaction with the world community. The government in power has no right to maintain control. They are incompetent and cruel, the worst combination. Burma is tucked away in a remote corner of the Earth where her government tries to hide her from the rest of the world. They want you not to know about Burma, they want you to remain ignorant of the political situation. Two years ago I knew nothing about Burma. Someone made an announcement in my political science class and I listened inattentively to their information, wondering if I could even find Burma on a map. Two years later, I was here seeing for myself and realizing how much I still have to learn. So spread the world, tell your friends about the issues, and go see it for yourself. Take it from me, it’s a sobering experience.

Mustachio Bashio (Mandalay, Burma)

Secret Police – Fu Manchu – The performance – Sobering facts – American Democracy

There was only one thing I wanted to see in Mandalay – the Mustache Brothers Comedy Troupe.  On my second night in town I went to go see their famous nightly performance, and I am still not sure what to think about it.  But let me begin at the beginning.

As you know, the government silences all forms of opposition.  It has a secret police force called the Directorate of Defense Services that sends spies out into the public to monitor conversations.  They ride the buses, they sit at cafes and they report everything back to the government.

Interesting side-story: I met a couple of Germans who had been traveling with a French girl who worked at the French Embassy in Bangkok.  Typically people who work for foreign governments, NGOs or the media declare some other occupation during their visa application, but this girl brazenly declared her affiliation with the French Embassy.  On her first day in Yangon, she was approached by a Burmese gentleman who awkwardly started up a conversation and began to follow her around.  He said that he used to live on So-and-so Street in Bangkok – the same exact street she lived on.  No coincidence.  He started asking her where she was going, and why she came to Burma.  Strange, isn’t it?

But anyways, let me get back to the story of the Mustache Brothers.  As you may have guessed, they are three mustachioed brothers who have been performing a comedy routine for over forty years.  They performed at weddings and family gatherings, and they eventually built themselves such a reputation that Aung San Suu Kyi (“The Lady”) invited them to perform at her home in Yangon to celebrate the 48th anniversary of Burmese independence.  Their jokes were typically critical of Burma’s roads and infrastructure, but they stopped short of directly criticizing the government.  But at The Lady’s house, they pulled straws to decide who would be one to change that.

By western standards, the joke was relatively innocuous: You used to call a thief “a thief.”  Now you call him “a civil servant.”  Three days later, two of the brothers were arrested and sentenced to almost two years of hard labor, imprisonment and torture.  The international community was outraged and people took to the streets in London to rally for their release.  10 comedians wrote a letter demanding the release of the Mustache Brothers.  Ironically, the government took the comedians seriously and eventually released the brothers.

This is what I knew as I approached their house in Mandalay.  They were officially banned from public performances, but they still performed “dress rehearsals” in their house every night.  The cost was a $5 donation.

I was immediately approached by a small bald man with a long, grey Fu-Manchu mustache.  The mustache brother led me into a small, dimly-lit room.  There were four wooden pallets on the floor and another man was covering the wood with a dirty red carpet, thereby forming something of a stage.  One wall was covered with posters of the Mustache Brothers with Aung San Suu Kyi and their other supporters.  The other wall was decorated with traditional marionette puppets.  There were three other foreigners sitting on plastic chairs.  I joined them, and the brothers’ 84 year old mother closed a curtain over the door and stood watch in front of the house.  The show began with just the four of us watching.

It was undoubtedly the oddest performance I have ever witnessed.  It began with the brothers talking about how they do not give taxi drivers commission for their show, how they were honest gents just struggling to continue performing.  It struck me as unusual that an innocent man would have to spend so much time professing his honesty, but I kept my mind open.

Then the comedy began.  It is understood that comedy rarely transfers from culture to culture, so I give the Brothers credit for cracking all their jokes in English.  They were certainly no Dane Cook, but they had some good ones.  Here’s one for ya:

Three months ago, I can’t sleep.  I have toothache.  I go to Thailand to see a dentist.  In Thailand they have democracy, I mean real democracy: 4 Prime Ministers in 3 months, that’s democracy!  Haha.  I was in a taxi and I saw people wearing yellow shirts in the street (he’s referring to Thailand’s opposition party, known as the Yellow Shirts), and I joined them.  They asked me, Why do you  come to Bangkok to see a dentist, don’t you have dentists in Burma?  I said, ‘Yes we do, but we’re not allowed to open our mouths!’

The jokes went on like this for a few hours, all the time the man jumping around the stage and maniacally flipping through painted wooden signs that supplemented his jokes.  The jokes were mixed in with movie clips from the US Campaign for Burma DVD, music played from an ancient tape player, and traditional Burmese dances performed by their wives and sisters.  Their wives performed in traditional silk gowns while one of the brothers danced around with a green monkey mask on.  It was such a strange combination of sights and sounds, by the end of the show I was utterly disorientated and unsure of what I had just seen.

But it wasn’t all jokes, he actually told me some shocking facts about the political situation.  He told me about the systematic rape of the Kachin and Shan women.  About the human-landmine-detectors.  About his prison term and the forced labor and torture he endured.  He said that in 1987 General Ne Win suddenly declared all 100, 50 and 20 kyat notes worthless, replacing them with 75, 35 and other denominations he deemed to be ‘lucky numbers.’  All the people who held the old notes lost all their savings when their money was made worthless with the stroke of a pen.  Many women snuck into Thailand to become prostitutes so they could send money back to their families.  They returned from Thailand with AIDS and spread the disease through Burma.  It was a sobering conversation I had with them.

When the brothers were arrested, the police came to their house at midnight so as not to make a scene.  They said the police always arrest people at night – one night your friend is drunkenly discussing politics at a bar and the next day he doesn’t show up for work.  The police make every effort to make things appear normal on the surface.

To me, that is the scariest part – how normal things appear on the surface.  The government prefers package-tourist to backpackers because such tours whisk tourists from place to place in air-conditioned buses and airplanes, thereby isolating and insulating them from the people.  They pay top dollar for government-owned hotels, they fly in government-owned airplanes, they see the “pretty-side” of Myanmar, and then they fly home.  I’m afraid if you asked one of these people about the political situation, they would say “Well, it didn’t seem too bad to me.”

From talking to the locals, I have come to the following conclusion.  The package tourists are right – it doesn’t seem that bad.  And that’s the worst part about it.  The government calculates the breaking point of the people and keeps the standard of living just slightly above this threshold.  Life isn’t good, but they have food in their bellies.

But in 2007, the government crossed the breaking point.  They cut the petrol subsidies and subsequently took a huge chunk out of the people’s collective paycheck.  That was enough to send people into the streets, led by the Buddhist monks.  And did the government concede?  No.  They shot the monks dead in cold blood.

The brothers had noticed me taking notes during their performance and assumed I was a journalist.  They gave me a DVD to copy and distribute in Thailand and the US.  They even entrusted me with a package for a friend in another town I was visiting.  I asked for their email.  They were not allowed one.  Telephone?  Nope.

We parted ways and I took off on my bike with their rebel contraband in my backpack.  It really felt like I was a few hundred years in the past – in a time before phones and the internet, like the Revolutionary War where rebels had to carry documents past the Redcoats by hand.  Burma really is like no place I have ever been before.

And yet I still did not know what to think about them.  Their initial insistence that they were honest men made me doubt that very claim.  Then they asked for $8, not $5.  Of course I was willing to pay them to support their bravery, but still it seemed strange.  I later talked to travelers who reckoned they are cashing in on their popularity from their mention in the Lonely Planet book.  Someone else claimed they had made a deal with the government in exchange for their freedom – they continue to perform, as long as they don’t say too many bad things about the government, and the government avoids having to deal with the fallout for locking them up again.

I didn’t know what to believe, but I tried to imagine a similar situation in the US.  Could you ever imagine Obama or Bush throwing Jon Stewart into jail and sentencing him to five years of hard labor and a stint of torture in Guantanamo Bay?   No way.  Though we might have something as deplorable as Guantanamo Bay, at least we are able to freely criticize our government.

Freedom is something we really take for granted in America.  But being an American traveling through Burma has really been a refreshing experience.  When George Bush failed to find WMDs in Iraq, he claimed we were there to promote democracy.  Many people around the world saw that as a thinly veiled pretext for controlling Iraq’s oil supply.  It is a pity that so many people think America’s commitment to democracy is a farce.

But not the Burmese.  These people have no freedom and they pray to have American-style democracy one day.  Though many people have lost faith in America, the Burmese people have not.  They wear American flags on their hats and shirts, and they love talking to me about American democracy.  Some of the Europeans I am traveling with joke that they are jealous of me because all the Burmese people are so excited to talk to an American.  Conversing with these oppressed people has truly renewed my faith in my own country.

They repeatedly ask me a difficult question: What is Barack Obama going to do for Myanmar?  I don’t know how to respond.  Of course we support their movement, but what does that mean?  If they rise up in the streets are we going to give them weapons, or did our experiment with backing South East Asian resistance movements end after the Vietnam War?

It hard to know what to do.  But if you have read this far, then I guess that means I’ve done something doesn’t it?  So for now, I urge you all to keep spreading the word.  Keep spreading awareness about Burma and this despicable situation.  That’s all for now, good night.

Another Side of Yangon (Yangon, Burma)

Out the door – Monks, tea and serenity – Hide and seek – History Lesson – Excerpts of Propaganda

After a sleepless night I shook the paranoia from my mind and set out determined to resume my discovery of Burma. I still yearned to hear the opinions of Burma’s silenced citizens, but I would now speak more cautiously to avoid endangering anyone else.
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I flew down the stairs, onto the street, to the bus station and onto some random bus. I didn’t know where I was going, but it was all the same to me. Luckily, the bus started heading north away from the city center and towards the massive Shwedagon Pagoda that towered above the Yangon skyline. About a half mile from the pagoda I jumped off the bus and started to wander the back streets of Yangon, eager to catch Yangon without her makeup on.
I meandered down a small alley lined on either side with open drainage ditches full of the gray water present in almost every developing nation. I have never understood what makes the roadside water from Delhi to Yangoon this disgusting gray, but I took it as a good sign that I was miles away from the Ritz Carlton.
I was practicing my newly acquired Burmese phrases when I was greeted by a red-robed Buddhist monk who beckoned me into his monastery. I followed him into the courtyard and spoke with him and the other monks for a while. I envy the simplicity of their lives. They all live communally in a five story building, surrounded on all sides by lush gardens. The atmosphere was tranquil; monks occupied their days with simple tasks like sweeping the courtyard, praying, laughing and studying.   I spent half an hour with the monks, thanked them for their time and continued wandering.
Jays Photos 052.jpgI continued toward the pagoda and had tea at a small street-side joint where the tables were only raised 8 inches off the ground and the patrons sat on 6 inch high plastic stools. The tea was hot, sweet and cheap. A whole pot was only 50 cents.
After a morning of Zen-like tranquility, I eventually got around to sightseeing.   I made my way up to the pagoda and was instantly awestruck by the superfluity of stupas in the massive circular complex. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most famous religious site in Burma, supposedly housing eight of the Buddha’s hairs. Over the years the complex has grown from a small shrine to a 98-meter golden stupa surrounded by hundreds of smaller stupas and shrines. It was stupa-fying. Wow, are you really still reading after that cheesy joke? Jays Photos 124.jpg
I thought I managed to circumvent the government ticket collectors until I felt a hand on my shoulder. Damn. Like most of the other backpackers here I am trying to minimize the amount of money I give to the government and trying to spend it at family-owned enterprises instead. I want my dollars to buy food for families, not bullets for the Burmese army.  The government knows this so they try even harder to collect their entry fees. It seems like the government is playing a game of hide-and-seek with the backpackers: we hide from the ticket checkers and they hide behind the stupas and sneak up on us by surprise. If that’s how it is, game on. You might have won the battle but you haven’t won the war!
I begrudgingly handed over the entrance fee – payable only in US dollars! What type of government doesn’t even accept their own currency? Furthermore they will accept nothing but the most immaculately clean bills with no tears or folds. Meanwhile their currency notes (the kyat) are some of the dirtiest things I have ever put in my pocket – they are valueless, torn, smelly, and oily and they look more like a used piece of toilet paper than a currency note.  One dollar equals about 1000 kyats, but the official rate is only 4 kyats to the dollar. Delusional? Yes.
After circumambulating the stupa for an hour or so, I cut out of the pagoda and went to go find the house of the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been put under house arrest by the military. Unfortunately tP4010512.JPGhe government prohibited us from going anywhere near her house.
Ok, so how many of you did your homework as I asked? Hmm…not as many as I’d hoped. For those of you that didn’t read up on the political situation here in Burma, here is a quick summary of Burma’s history.
Modern history starts in the mid-nineteenth century when the British entered into the scene. They were occupying India at the time (which is directly west of Burma) and were feeling restless, so they decided to invade Burma. They used commercial disputes as a pretext for invading the south, and then took over the remainder of the country in two more moves.   British companies entered Burma and began exporting her raw materials, namely teak and rice.
But the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire and the Japanese ousted them during WWII. They people of Burma soon kicked out the Japanese and demanded independence. The leader for independence was Bogyoke Aung San, father of the current pro-democracy leader,Aung San Suu Kyi.
In 1947 he won the first election but was assassinated before he could take office. Despite the massive cultural divisions in this diverse country, democracy lasted until 1962 when General Ne Win took over in a coup. In the name of socialism he nationalized every business and subsequently destroyed the economy. The country has been ruled by the military ever since.
As I mentioned, Burma is a diverse country. The “Burmese” people comprise about 2/3 of the population while the country is fringed by separate ethnic groups, all of whom began fighting the central government for independence shortly after the coup. The borders of Burma remain wild to this day, with warlords and rebel groups financing their war with Yangon by smuggling heroin, jade and rubies into Thailand. The government responded to their resistance with force and has subsequently been accused of ethnic cleansing. The borders with Thailand, Laos, China and Bangladesh are warzones and the government does not want tourists to witness what it does in these areas. Foreigners are essentially restricted to the center of the country.
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For the last half century the military has suppressed ethnic groups and kept their people hidden from the outside world to maintain their hold on power while the country has sunk deep into poverty. Nationalization of Burma’s industries has made the Generals rich while the people are abysmally poor.
Then in 1988, the people took to the streets and demanded free elections. The military responded violently and killed 3,000 people over six weeks. Burma’s Buddhist monks used their moral authority to condemn the government and demand General Ne Win’s abdication. He obeyed and promised free elections the next year.
In 1989 the military formed its own party in anticipation: The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Unsurprisingly they declared martial law in the name of Law and Order.
SLORC was challenged by the National League for Democracy, led by Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. She rallied the people against the SLORC and they retaliated by putting her under house arrest and postponing the elections. Nevertheless, the elections were eventually held and the NLD won 85% of the vote but she was prevented from taking power. The military re-asserted its control and put her under house arrest where she remains today. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and has been in and out of house arrest since 1989.
I have only been here for two days, but you can feel the fear people have. They refer to Aung San Suu Kyi as “The Lady” for fear the secret police will overhear their conversations. They are not allowed to talk to foreigners about politics and they state-run media is essentially propaganda. I picked up a copy of the New Myanmar Light and flipped through pages of pro-government anti-western articles. The front page was headlined with the government’s Four Political Objectives, Four Economic Objectives, and Four Social Objective.  They were even courteous enough to outline the “People’s Desire” on behalf of the citizenry:
People’s Desire
·         Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
·         Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
·         Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
·         Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy 
Being in a police state is a sobering experience. The television shows nationalistic images of the army marching and whole battalions of soldiers saluting their leaders. We are not allowed to take photos of soldiers and one local told me I was probably being followed by the police because I am an American. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant; this is how the people think and act every day.
My second day in Burma had shown me another side of Yangon: quiet tea stalls and monasteries, cultural monuments, and a glimpse into life in a police state. I liked Yangon but I knew I would inevitably return to fly to Bangkok so I decided to depart the following morning. I spent the evening poring over my maps and considering my next destination: north to the famous temples of Bagan? South to the unspoiled beaches along the Indian Ocean? Or should I follow the Buddhist pilgrims east to the holy “Golden Rock” at Kyaiktiyo?
Decisions, decisions.