I am living at a compound called the Gap. There are 9 bedrooms for volunteers, 2 permanent staff members share a home (1 person has the top floor, the other has the bottom), 2 offices, a few store rooms, a medical exam room for emergencies, a kitchen, a dining area, female bathroom, male bathroom, and a laundry room.
The Gap is located right on the water and the sunsets are incredible.
My only hope coming into this experience was that I’d have my own room. I did not care how rough or basic the accommodation was…I just wanted my own space. Well, guess what? I have my own room! It is bigger and nicer than I thought it’d be. It’s very basic and comfortable. I have a full (double) bed with a mosquito net, a fan, a shelving unit, and a coffee table.
We have a shared bathroom situation divided into males/females. The female bathroom has 2 toilets and 2 showers the water is pumped directly from the lake. The toilets and showers are the scariest places because that is where the mosquitos hang out. It is high season for malaria. It came late this year so we are in the thick of it. Fortunately, the malaria carrying mosquitos only bite at night. We have solar heated water which is a bit warmer than cold. I don’t really miss hot showers…at least not yet.
We have a decent sized kitchen with a gas stove top & oven, 2 refrigerators (up to 10-14 volunteers), and storage space. We recycle plastic and paper and we put food in some sort of compost or maybe just feed it to the local goats. I’m not sure. We have security guards and local workers that cook our lunch 5 days a week for a small fee, they do laundry (everything is hand washed and hung out to dry) for a small fee, and clean up the kitchen for us. It’s incredible to have people who do the dishes for you (definitely not something I’m use to)! #spoiled
We have solar panels at the Gap. Electricity in the village is recent within the last 15 years. There are no street lamps and the dirt roads get really dark at night. Translation: the stars are incredible but look out for puddles, rocks, and holes.
The Gap is home to 3 dogs. 11 year old Olemu (means respect in Chewa), 8 year old Bo (he was born with a twisted unusable back leg), and 4 year old Nala (she’s a new rescue). We have 2 cats and a few chickens sneak in every now and then.
It’s winter now so temperatures run in the 70s F (21 C) during day and 60s (15 C) at night. Perfect conditions. October is hot and can get higher than 100 F (28 C) on some days.
Most of the villagers go to bed early around 9pm and wake up at 6am. They do not have electricity or running water. Everyone gets their water from the lake. They wash their pots/pans in the lake and bathe in the lake. There is a high risk for bilharzia and other parasitic infections (aka worms) due to the dirty/unfiltered lake water.
The villagers cook over an open flame or on hot coals. If you go out to eat it will easily take an hour or longer to receive your meal…normally worth the wait especially if it’s the fish cooked over hot coals! The most popular fish to eat is kampango (catfish)…it’s delicious! One restaurant we had to order dinner by 2pm in order to eat that night. They go buy the produce and fish fresh from a local market.
The locals are friendly and wear bright colored skirts/outfits. They speak varying levels of English which is an official language of the country.
There are a few bars. You will not find a respectable local woman in a bar. They stay at home with the children. If you see a local woman in a bar 99% of the time she is a working girl making less than 1 US dollar for her services. Most have HIV or carry multiple sexually transmitted infections. #practicesafesex #condoms #realitycheck
The local currency is about 720 MWK (Malawian Kwacha) to 1 USD. Doing that math is difficult. There are no ATMs in the village.
The wifi is surprising good. You buy a sim card and purchase a data plan and use 3G.
There is a lovely Canadian/South African here who does Pilates and yoga classes! They are amazing! We had a morning Pilates class with high tea afterwards. Carrot cake, chocolate cake, scones, and this South African dessert were offered….maybe I tried everything. #worthit #winning
It’s always difficult being in a new place especially when the experienced volunteers have been together for months. It just takes time to get into the routine and connect. I changed high schools and universities and it always took about 3 months to make real friends. Luckily, it takes less time while traveling.
I love working at the clinic. I will describe it more in my next post.
If you’d like to receive a postcard from Malawi donate $10 or more by clicking the link below!
I’m getting ready to head to Malawi where I will volunteer as a nurse for 6 months! I am beyond excited, a little nervous, and to be honest, a little scared. Mostly excited!!
Volunteering has been a huge part of my life. It is how I have maintained funds to travel on and off for the last 2 years.
I use a website <www.workaway.info>. It’s similar to Facebook, but is for volunteering. The concept is you work 25 hours a week in exchange for room and board. Of course, in some cases you end up working way more and no one minds, because it’s with huskies!
A look at some of my volunteer adventures.
The Arctic (60km north of the Arctic Circle to be exact), Finland.
To say that I love this place is definitely an understatement. I’ve been coming to my winter haven since 2012. When I had a job, I used my vacation time to volunteer.
There are 70 huskies at this kennel. They all work by pulling sleds. Every single one of them loves it. Their passion is inspirational! I’ve been lucky enough to ride and drive the sleds. It is an incredible experience to see these working dogs doing what they love in a magical winter wonderland.
It’s a lot of hard work in a cold climate. Examples of the work: cleaning kennels, harnessing dogs, feeding dogs, mending fences, working in the restaurant, cleaning cabins, fixing sleds/harnesses, digging out kennels from so much snow. Much like farm life, the to do list only gets longer.
Yes, I know all 70 huskies names. They are like people to me. They look completely different and have different personalities. Some like to play games, some like to eat, some are hyper, some are shy, some are master escape artists. I could go on and on about these huskies. Once they get to know you, they all love to cuddle…even the shy ones
The Arctic has given me so much. I have seen the Northern Lights which are always breathtaking! I have had a group of 8 fluffy puppies run and jump on me. You do not know joy until you have a litter of puppies jumping on you and licking your face. The puppies were 7 weeks old and in this case, were Finnish Lapphunds (traditionally used to herd reindeer).
I’ve talked a lot about the dogs and they are incredible, and equally great are the people. You meet so many amazing people at this kennel from the family that owns it to the wonderful friend/neighbor to the volunteers! We all come from different backgrounds/countries/cultures!
Sheep Farm, Estonia:
I lived and worked on a sheep farm for 3 weeks. It was great getting to know the family, watching Eurovision, visiting a traditional festival, using a wood burning sauna, and spending the night in an old bunker (back in the day, the young Estonian men hid here from the Soviet Union…they were caught. It was not a happy ending). I got to feed some of the lambs with a bottle!
Animal Welfare Center, Thailand
A place that introduced me to some of my best friends. I came back to this place 3 times within a year to see the animals and people I adore.
I worked with cats and dogs. The goal of the welfare center is sterilization to control the population of cats/dogs and then adoption. It is also a veterinary clinic.
It was a lot of hard, dirty work in a hot and humid environment. I worked mainly with the dogs: taking care of the sick/injured, cleaning kennels, exercising dogs, washing dogs and removing ticks. Lots of ticks.
My friends and I saved a litter of puppies from being drowned by locals. They were about 6 weeks old. I came really close to adopting, Summer; the one I claimed and named. Fortunately, she was adopted, and sadly, they renamed her Skylar. I guess they weren’t Game of Thrones fans. I was lucky enough to see her before she flew to her forever home in Germany. Yes, there were tears.
Earthquake destroyed village, Nepal:
I spent a week here and it was not enough time. This was one of the best Christmas’s I’ve ever had. Sitting around a fire, on a mountain, surrounded by rice fields, and again, great people (sensing a theme) from my fellow volunteers to the villagers. The Nepalese are some of the most kind and generous people I’ve ever met. This village really treats you like family.
I spent my time crushing rocks with a mallet with half the women of the village. We made gravel for the foundation of their new homes. One day, I taught English at the school. I slept in a tent with 5 other people, there was no running water, and I showered in a rice field (I highly recommend it!). #luxury
Small hospital, rural, India:
This village and the staff of the hospital took me in and made me family. The villagers were really nice as well. I’d go for a daily walk, and they’d run out of their homes to greet me and they loved for me to take their picture!
I did dressing changes, observed surgeries, and got to assist in a surgery.
The joy and happiness I get from traveling/volunteering is always due to the people I meet. They make or break an experience. Even when you do not speak each other’s language you find ways to communicate and it’s beautiful!
Now, bring on Malawi!! 🙂
If you would like to sponsor me and help me save lives in Malawi click the link below. If you donate $10 or more, I’d love to send you a personalized post card!
I have some exciting news! I am going on a medical humanitarian adventure. I will be a volunteer nurse for an NGO (non government organization) in Malawi!!!
Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa. It is bordered by Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Nyasaland. Malawi is one of the smallest countries in Africa with a population of around 16 million. It is among the world’s least developed countries and unsurprisingly, has a high infant mortality rate and low life expectancy. The official languages are English and Chichewa with several lesser known languages spoken throughout small villages. Lake Malawi is one of the largest lakes in the world and home to the most diverse population of fish!
I start at the beginning of June and will be living near the lake with up to 6 doctors and 5 nurses; mostly from Ireland and Australia. We are all volunteers. There are locally trained, paid medical assistants, laboratory technicians, translators and more that are a part of the team. Before this clinic was founded, the villagers would have to travel for days on foot or if they were lucky all day by bus to reach the closest medical facility, a 4 hour car ride away. Can you imagine, not having a hospital, a clinic, or even a doctor right down the road?
Some of the diseases we treat are asthma, malnutrition, dysentery (infection that causes severe diarrhea), HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Cholera. Our clinic offers a general medical practice, out patient care/surgeries, and a 24 hour emergency services.
Now, I need your help. The Irish volunteers get a government stipend for food/transportation, however, being American, I do not qualify for this stipend. Please help me become a medical humanitarian aide!
Breakdown of cost:
Round trip transportation: $2,000
Cost of living per week: $150 ($3,600 for 6 months)
Nursing License: $500
That is a nice chunk of change and will be spread out over 6 months!
This does not include necessities like toiletries (soap, shampoo, sunscreen, bug spray, etc.), mosquito net, sheets, towel, sim card, etc.
If you would like to sponsor me and be a key part of my success as a medical humanitarian volunteer, please click on the link below. If you donate $10 or more, I’d love to send you a personalized post card! So attach your address when you donate or shoot me an email. Keep in mind, Malawi is not known for reliable postal services.
Every little bit helps and I greatly appreciate all the support!
I will do my best to update you while I’m in Malawi with posts on my blog and pictures on facebook/instagram! www.instagram.com/DunnDays This is all internet permitting. If I am unable to update you in the field, I will do it when I get home!
The pictures below are from some of the developing countries I’ve volunteered in like Nepal!
For the last week, I’ve been volunteering at a hospital in rural India. Here’s the 4-1-1 based on my experiences and observations so far.
Things to note:
Suburbs southeastern USA (Suburbia US) where I grew up
Rural India where I’m volunteering
Everyone drives an automatic car. You commute an hour to work via a 6 lane highway. The roads are cement and when potholes arise, they are filled with more cement.
Most people walk or ride bicycles. Some people have motorcycles or mopeds and even less have cars. People with cars have drivers. When you do drive, the road is made of dirt and filled with potholes. This road is barely big enough for 2 cars to pass each other.
Used in 2 instances and rarely (unless you’re an aggressive driver).
Blarring: a long, loud horn and it says, “Don’t you dare.” or “Get out of my way.”
Beep beep: is a quiet, polite, short horn saying, “I know you can’t see me, but I’m here.”
Used every minute. It’s used to pass other cars; to alert vehicles and people that they are coming around a corner; and to tell people/animals to get out of the way. The horn is similar to a traffic signal.
2 story brick home or 2 story wooden home painted a neutral or mellow color (light blue, light yellow, etc.)
1 story: adobe home or cement home painted a bright “in your face” (in a good way) color.
Western toilet, toilet paper, sink, cold/hot water, shower, tub. You shower nude.
Squat toilet, clean (wipe) yourself with your LEFT hand, bucket to “flush”, cold water, bucket for shower/bath. You bath with a Lungi (sarong or wrap).
Washing machine with cold, warm, or hot water and a dryer. Mainly, women do the laundry.
Cold water, bucket, rock, and hang dry. Men do their own laundry. Women do their laundry and their children’s.
Stove top, oven, microwave, sink, dishwashing machine, table, chairs, and cutlery. Occasionally, we eat with our hands: pizza, hot dogs, hamburger, etc.
Open flame portable gas stove top, hand wash dishes, sometimes use leaves for plates, and RIGHT hand for cutlery. It’s amazing to watch them eat. They mix their food, and then slurp it up with their fingers. It takes practice and a lot of skill not to make a mess (I use this practice occasionally; can’t bring myself to do it all the time, especially when a spoon or fork is offered!). Sit on the floor.
3 meals a day: 0800, 1200-1300, 1800-2000
3 meals a day: 0900, 1300-1400, 2100-2200
The times are approximations.
You can get anything imaginable. You eat out a lot and don’t really learn to cook
You cook or have a cook. You eat a lot of rice and dalma
Both groups love food especially fried.
It is not socially acceptable for heterosexual guys to show each other affection.
Heterosexual guys can openly show affection to each other. (we won’t get into the fact that gays are not allowed here….not openly at least).
Compared to Europe, I’d say we’re prudes. However, in India, we are liberals. We show our significant other affection in public. It might be a kiss, holding hands, hugging, or more.
They are friends. I did not witness any touching. They know when they are going to get married.
It varies, some parents let their children live their lives; some parents pressure their children to get married, because, damn it, they are ready for grandchildren. (Thanks Mom and Dad for being the former and never the latter!)
The young adults here know what age they want to get married. If they have not found their life partner, their parents will expand the search and come up with an arrangement. They can then say, “Yes” or “No.” There is still a social caste system here, but they can marry outside of their caste.
Typical wedding: rehearsal dinner (night before), ceremony, reception with food/dancing. Most weddings are formal affairs, girls in dresses, skirts, or business casual pants. Guys in nice pants and button up shirt (normally a tie is involved). The bride normally wears a white dress and the groom a tuxedo.
2 days, stage performances, lots of food. Women wear dresses with pants or saree made with bright colors. Men wear whatever they want. The bride wears a wedding saree, and has a piercing in her nose. The groom wears traditional garment: long shirt (knee length) and pants. The groom and bride get henna on their hands. (This was my 1 experience…the normal is based on what caste the bride is in)
BOTH countries spend an OUTRAGEOUS amount of money on weddings. People go into debt for them.
Whatever you want from shirts, pants, dresses, & shorts. Try not to show your butt or midriff.
Women wear saree or dress (with pants and scarf). Typically, made of bright colors. Girls should NOT show their shoulders or knees, but abdomen is okay. Normally, for everyday wear, if you’re unmarried you wear a dress and if you’re married you wear a saree. In Hindu, married men and women have a red dot on their foreheads and unmarried a black. Children have a larger black dot, because they need more protection. Married women wear bangles.
Most of the women love to accessorize and paint their nails.
Public school is funded by the taxpayer, no uniforms, 5 days/week, most kids feel school is a punishment or burden. Giant dry erase boards at the front (at least in my younger days). At university, the normal is computers and projecting slideshows onto a giant screen.
Public school is free (thanks to a non-profit otherwise parents would have to pay), they wear uniforms, 6 days/week, most kids feel lucky to go to school. Chalk boards are used.
Children are raised by parents with babysitters, daycare, or stay at home moms/dads. The lucky ones have a retired parent or in-laws that watch their children. Women typically “coo” over all children. Men only like their own children.
Children are raised by the community. Everyone holds the baby through out the day. All men “coo” over all the children.
4 seasons: summer, autumn, winter, & spring.
3 seasons: summer, mosoon, & winter.
Both have summers that are hot and humid. Luckily, it’s winter so days are 80’s (30), nights 60’s (18).
Saree or dress
In India, it is socially acceptable to spit, burp, pick your nose, hawk a loogy, and pee (if you’re a dude) in public. Trash is thrown out the car window. Cow dung is dried and used to fuel a fire.
We both send our children to time out.
We both take selfies.
Let’s do a quiz!
Can you guess which is rural India and which is Suburbia US?
Suburbia US vs. rural India
Rural India vs. suburbia US
Suburbia US vs rural India
Suburbia US vs rural India
India and Suburbia US have a lot in common and a lot of differences. Some things are easier to get use to than others. Sometimes it feels like to be polite I need to do the opposite of my life’s training. There is no right or wrong way, and a smile goes a long way! One thing is for sure, the people in both areas are fantastic. I have been welcomed into this small Indian community and been treated like family. In the US, we call it southern hospitality.
In the year 2072 (to us westerners mid-April 2015) a terrible disaster struck Nepal wreaking havoc on an already poor country. Almost 10 months later, most villages are still waiting for the relief money their government is holding.
Thangpalkot is a massive village with 9 wards. I’m going to talk about Thangpalkot 1.
As you may have noticed, I like to make lists!
Thangpalkot is about 2500 meters (7500 feet) above sea level.
There are over 400 residents.
Around 20 people died in the earthquakes.
All the villagers lost their homes, some of which were over 300 years old.
The villagers lack the money to rebuild and had to use the resources available to them.
Old homes: cute 2-3 story cottages. The first floor was made of stone and held together with dirt. The 2nd and 3rd layers were wood. With a metal roof.
Current homes: shacks made from the remains of their condemned houses.
Current homes offer no protection from the natural elements and little space for large families and storage.
Let’s hit rewind for a minute.
Do you ever have those moments where you know your life is about to change. Some people fight change with everything they have, others embrace it. After all, change or the unknown is scary. I like to think I’m in between leaning towards embracement. Sometimes I embrace change and sometimes I fight it.
Traveling has made me open my eyes to so many things. It’s made me more accepting of change. Why travel if you want everything to stay the same?
Recently, I was having dinner alone. I was absorbed by my books and being extremely antisocial. Then my food came. I put the books away and started openly watching people. I stare a lot more and don’t care as much. I have to thank the Burmese people for that. They are such a curious group and so unashamed that I’ve tried to adopt their practice.
Anyways, there were many people in this restaurant. The normal being groups of 3-4 enjoying drinks and good food. There was one other person dining alone. He was sitting across from me with a table in between us. He was consumed by his headphones, cellphone, and laptop. In case anyone is wondering, the international sign for don’t talk to me is headphones.
I just stared to see if I could catch his eye and I got nothing. It made me sad, 20 years ago people didn’t have technology to distract them. People actually talked to each other. People don’t talk anymore not with apps like Tinder, Facebook, Grinder, you name it. It’s easy to talk to someone online. There is no pressure. It’s scary to talk to someone in person.
I know what you’re thinking. But, Amy, you were reading. Exactly. I knew I was no better than this guy; I had been equally consumed by technology in the form of an ereader. Who’s going to have the guts to approach someone absorbed by technology?
Luckily fate intervened. Spoiler alter!!!! This is not a love story.
After coming back from the toilet, I was laughing at this sign.
The solo diner saw me laughing, we made eye contact, and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, not completely, because I’m going to tell you about it.
We started the normal traveler meets traveler conversation. Where are you from? How long have you been traveling? What are you doing in Nepal?
This guy, Derek Cowan, blew me away with his story. His journey as a solo traveler is to travel to 50 countries and do 50 random acts of kindness (RAK). His first stop is Nepal.
Derek arrived in Nepal in November, made a connection, and was introduced to an amazing guy named Hrinzen. Hrinzen grew up in a remote village. His grandparents still live there, and he talked about the needs of his village. Voilà, Derek has his first RAK (random act of kindness).
Thangpalkot 1 Needs: 86 New HOMES!!!
Grand total of USD 170,000 (GBP 112,000) or about USD 2,000/house.
The villagers still have a hard time believing that Derek is doing this for nothing. Can you imagine? You lose everything. For 9 months you endure; you farm; you live as normally as you can. The pain of losing loved ones and security is always there. You can’t escape it. You are living it. You are constantly reminded by it, because you live in a shack with a nice view of your condemned home. You hope the government will give you money to rebuild.
Then, out of the blue, a westerner walks up and says, “Hey guys, you don’t know me, but I’m going to give you money to rebuild your homes.”
Talk about unbelievable. If that were to happen to me, I’d ask, “What’s the catch?”
Thangpalkot is by far the most remote I’ve ever been.
Let’s start with getting there. The journey to Thangpalkot was something. Paul and Will (English father/son duo) rented a car and were nice enough to let Derek, Hrinzen, and I catch a ride. We crammed the car as full as we could and were off.
“The roads are rough” is an understatement. Thangpalkot is about 100 km (60 miles) from Kathmandu and it takes SIX, that’s 6 or S-I-X, hours to get there. 6! That is how bad the roads are.
I was hoping to sleep in the car, but boy, was that impossible. Once you’re out of Kathmandu, the “road” is only wide enough to fit 2 cars if they’re going slower than a turtle and in select spots of the “road”. Forget pavement, it’s just holes, sand, and gravel mixed with the occasional dung. We bumped our heads so much, I’m surprises no one got a concussion.
In the monsoon season, it’s nearly impossible to drive to Thangpalkot with roads closing for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. The bridges have been destroyed by the earthquakes and have yet to be rebuilt.
We arrived at the village to an amazing welcome. We (Paul, Will, Derek, and me) were given hot tea, flowers, and a scarf (Buddhist/Hindu custom). We were shown to our tent donated by Canada (Thanks Canada!). The next day, 2 more volunteers arrived (Sander and Lynn, a Dutch couple).
From far away the village is breath taking. It is located on a mountain surrounded by rice terraces and the Himalayas. The earthquake happened over 8 months ago, and the destruction it caused is still evident everywhere you look. The condemned homes are used as storage and the families have built small shacks near by.
There is electricity in the village; thanks to a nearby hydroelectric plant. There is no running water (in the western sense) and no garbage pickup. Oh, and thanks to the Indian/Nepali border problems, there is no gas/petrol for cooking. The locals use local streams for water (they’ve fashioned spouts and use this water for everything from bathing to cooking to watering their crops). They use fires to cook meals. They burn their garbage or just throw it on the ground. They don’t use heaters and the nights are cold.
They eat chicken, goats, and buffalo. Cows, dogs, and oxen are sacred to them.
Random Fun Fact from Jimmy (Parahawking): If you are driving in Nepal, there are 2 things you need to remember. 1. Don’t go too fast. 2. If you have the choice between hitting a child and hitting a cow, run over the child.
The first house is being built, and the locals do all the labor to help keep costs low. The women make gravel (1 of the ingredients for the foundation), and the men are building the homes. The new houses are being built with earthquake resistance in mind. The steel framed structure should take the majority of the impact, and it should be safe in the event of a future earthquake.
I spent my time in the village doing what I could to help. I moved rocks out of the way with the help of some of the young girls.
I tried this…
It was way too painful, the metal edge digs into your back. It’s also heavy. No kidding, it’s filled with rocks. Plus, I was up in higher altitude and struggled for breath with minimal exercise.
I decided to pass on the rock moving, and joined the rock crushing group. I made gravel. The women were so cute. We sat together and gossiped as best we could with the language barrier. I had my station: a rock to sit on, a pile of rocks to crush, a hammer (shaped like a mallet), and a rock catcher (keeps rocks from escaping the mean swing of the hammer. I would also have my keeper: 1 woman would go around and collect the thinner/smaller (aka the easy rocks) for me to break. I still developed blisters. Every time I moved, the women would tell me to take a break. They were so sweet with their concern for my comfort.
I also spent a day and a half at the school. Lynn and I taught classes together. Below, you’ll see, we taught them a game I played in theater. It’s called Bear, rabbit, and elephant.
I loved spending my time with the locals. They really took me in and made me feel I was a part of their families.
I left the village and the first home was nearly complete! In addition, there is already enough money to build 5 more houses!
Update: The first house is compete and the next houses are being built as we speak (or as you read this!). If you are interested in helping out this incredible village, check out www.helpthejourney.com. Please, donate today!
It sounds like an easy question, but I’ve always hated it. I’ve never been able to answer it. I will start talking about one country and end with another. The truth is every country I’ve traveled to has something to offer!
Back to that dreaded question. Those of you who know me, are probably thinking “Finland!” Of course, Finland is the obvious answer. It’s not Finland, but the little village I visit that I love. It is the whole package from the incredible family/neighbor to the boisterous dogs to the beautiful land to the fascinating history. The place I visit in the arctic is my own personal safe haven. Plus, everyone likes the idea of dog sledding in the Arctic, but most people don’t dream about this atypical paradise!
The answer to that dreaded question: Myanmar. I can’t say enough good things about the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (pronounced Me-an-mar). Formerly, known as Burma. Get here fast before tourism ruins it.
Before coming to Asia, fellow travelers told me that Asians were going to love me and my light features. They said a lot of Asians would take my picture. This notion made me slightly uncomfortable, but I love to take photos of people and places that are different from me too! I tried to mentally prepare myself for the attention. I spent about 3 1/2 months in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia and not one person took my picture. I didn’t blend in, but I definitely didn’t stand out. Granted, for the most part, I was in tourists places.
On the flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Yangon, Myanmar I sat next to two Burmese women. They kept looking at me. It was unnerving, however, I knew they were just being curious. Believe it or not I don’t love a lot of attention…just a healthy amount! They shyly asked, “Can we take a picture?” We took multiple photos on both their phones. It was endearing and entertaining. I quickly decided I needed a photo too. I wanted to document this historic moment in my life. My 15 minutes of fame had finally arrived.
I arrived in Yangon a few days before the start of my meditation course. I decided to explore one of the Pagodas. I went to Buddha’s First Sacred Hair Relic Botataung Pagoda (BFSHRBP). Wow, that’s a mouth full. It is a relatively small pagoda compared to the Shwedagon Pagoda which is massive and the main Pagoda in Yangon. Side note: Shwedagon is overcrowded with locals and tourists. It gets so much traffic it has multiple escalators leading up to it.
I’m glad I ended up at the smaller pagoda. It was the perfect size. I wondered around, took photos, got blessed by a monk, and enjoyed the peace and quiet. A man who works at the Pagoda approached me and asked “Can I take your picture?” He is shaking my hand in the photo, and it was hysterical. His friend had a professional camera. Ten minutes later, I realized they worked selling tourists photos. I noticed that they were printing out an 8×11 size photo of me and this man. Just when I thought it couldn’t get more embarrassing, they laminated it. I was blown away. If anyone ever goes to the Buddha’s First Sacred Hair Relic Botataung Pagoda, you’ll have to let me know if my photo is hanging up somewhere.
I was off to one side contemplating my next move, when an older gentleman approached me. He is in his 80’s and speaks amazing English. He explained the Burmese Zodiac signs to me. All 8 signs are represented around the Pagoda. There are 8 days of the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning, Wednesday afternoon, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday).
Your sign is the day of your birth. If you are interested in your sign check out this link.
I was born on a Wednesday evening and my Burmese Zodiac signs are planet: Rahu (dark moon), animal: tuskless elephant, amulet: ivory (which sucks because I will not buy ivory), direction: Northwest (funny because since coming to Asia I’ve been moving Northwest), and lucky number: 12.
He asked for a tip at the end, and for some reason I didn’t feel scammed. I think being scammed is partly my attitude, but also how a stranger approaches me. He approached me, and seemed genuinely interested in me as a person. He saw more than just dollar signs.
After the meditation course (see previous post), a group of us stayed in Yangon for at least a night. We went for drinks, shared our views on the course, and talked travel.
Coincidentally, most of us ended up in Bagan. We all arrived in small groups of 1 or 2. My first night in Bagan was the full moon festival. We went and saw local men fighting Muay Thai.
The following morning, we woke up before the sun. We rented bicycles, and went searching for a Pagoda to watch the sunrise. We ended up at Pya-tha-da-Paya. I found out later that Pya-tha-da-paya is the best Pagoda for sunrise. It has a flat roof, and the Buddha is exposed due to an earthquake. At the entrance, we ran into a nun who took the meditation course with us. Small world!
We climbed to the top and were surrounded by incredible views. I experienced that “Wow!” moment. It doesn’t happen often, but traveling definitely makes it happen more frequently. It’s that moment you have where what you’re seeing is so beautiful, you want to pinch yourself. You can’t believe how lucky you are to see or experience something.
After the sunrise, Sam, Kathi, and I sat at the top while the others went down to a local stand for coffee. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some local young men staring. I knew what was coming. They asked if we’d take a photo with them. Of course, we obliged. These 2 guys took turns posing with us. As they were reviewing the photos, another group of locals approached. Then 2 more. Then 3 more. We quickly became an attraction in our own right. Girls were kicking out family/friends to have photos alone with us. It was a circus.
After breakfast, we continued our bike tour, and stumbled upon a local handicraft house. They make lacquerware in Bagan. I was interested in buying a small cup. I had settled on a design when the woman took it from me. To my horror, she sat the cup down in the dirt, and then she stood on it. I’m happy to report the cup survived without even a scratch…talk about durability.
We took a half day trip to Mount Popa. Diederik, one of the guys we met in Bagan, was trying to make friends with the monkeys. Monkeys are gross, intelligent, and potentially aggressive vermin. We were walking down Mt. Popa and came across a monkey with a bushel of bananas. This monkey was being territorial. He clearly warned us to stay away and we all listened. That is except Diederik.
Diederik laughed and said, “The monkey won’t hurt you.”
He got down on his knees to be on the monkey’s level. He pointed at the bananas and said, “Give me a banana.”
The monkey was not happy. He kept warning Diederik to back off. Diederik wasn’t listening. The monkey ran out of patience, and suddenly, stormed towards Diederik shoving him with all his might (arms all the way extended). Diederik nearly jumped out of his skin. Luckily, no one was injured.
We ended up at a nice hotel with a view of Mt. Popa. We enjoyed drinks, and another incredible sunset. The company wasn’t bad either (If you’re reading this…shout out to all the lovely people I met in Myanmar!) From a distance, Mt. Popa looks like a castle!
My friends left Bagan a day or so before me. I really enjoyed this time alone. I went to a local dance performance that was held in a Palace. I took long walks exploring the Pagodas. In Bagan, the locals work the fields surrounding the Pagodas. Can you imagine having these incredible structures as a part of your farm land?
On my last morning, I watched the sunrise from the sky. I went on a hot air balloon ride!! I was happy to check that off my bucket list! I got picked up in an old bus (the inside was made out of wood from floor to ceiling). We were greeted with hot coffee, given safety instructions, and watched the crew inflate the hot air balloons. The ride itself was about 1 hour which was the perfect amount of time. The morning ended with a champagne toast (Chag-wa or cheers) and breakfast. I’m not going to lie, I got a bit tipsy off of champagne at 7:30 in the morning. I couldn’t resist. I love champagne, and it had been forever.
The pilot, Elly, was 1 of 3 female pilots in Bagan. There are probably close to 100 pilots per season.
I asked, “How did you find this career?”
She said, “Oh you know, I slept with a pilot.”
We all laughed. We later found out she married that pilot. She is a seasoned pilot, and the only female with enough flight hours to fly a 16 passenger balloon. There are five compartments in the 16 passenger baskets. The center one for the pilot and 2 compartments on each side big enough for 4 people to fit comfortably.
After Bagan, I ended up in Kalaw in the mountains. I reconnected with Sam and Mónica from my meditation course. We did a 4 day trek to Inle Lake. We used A1 trekking, and they customized our trek. Most people do a 2 or 3 day hike, but we did a 4 day.
Trek Day 1:
We started the trek early. We saw incredible views and our guide, Hlasoe, pointed out some plants we could eat.
Within the first hour, Hlasoe said, “There is a waterfall we can visit. I can get us there, but I’m not sure how to get from the waterfall to the Viewpoint (our sleeping destination).”
We said, “Let’s go for it.”
We found the waterfall easily, and enjoyed a packed lunch. Hlasoe went exploring to figure out our next move. He came back with a local who agreed to be his guide. It was wonderful; we traveled across people’s farms. The Burmese people are hospitable and friendly. Everyone waves and says Mingalaba (hello). One villager gave each of us an orange. The best tasting orange I ever had! It’s an incredible feeling knowing the person who’s produce you’re enjoying.
After a short time, the trail ended. Our guide’s guide got out his machete, and started hacking a path. It was hard work to trek through the bush. The inclines and declines were intense. We were proud of ourselves, and enjoyed it for a little while. Trekking through the bush was not something we wanted to do for 4 days, but it was fun for a small part of Day 1.
An hour or two later, our guide’s guide had to leave. At this point, we were on a clear path. He gave Hlasoe directions. We found ourselves in someone’s private garden, and stumbled upon their hut. They quickly offered us tea and bananas. They stared a lot, smiled, and took some photos of us. The best part, they were not expecting money. They did it out of the kindness of their hearts. Mónica tipped them to show our appreciation!
We trekked for another 2 hours and finally made it to the Viewpoint, a small Nepalese restaurant. True to its name, we had an incredible view. We enjoyed watching the sky. It was filled with clouds that reflected and intensified the changing colors of the sunset.
It was freezing in the mountains. The family invited us inside their home for warmth. The house consisted of 1 large room with a kitchen area on the left, table in the middle, and sleeping area on the right. The “stove” is a fire. It was a cozy place and our chef prepared us a lovely meal!
We slept in a separate building opposite the house. Our beds were thin mats elevated on a platform. They provided a few blankets and a pillow. The night was cold. In the Kalaw/Lake Inle area, nights get to be around 5°C (41°F). There is no heater or fire. Don’t even get me started on insulation or lack there of. I was grateful for the roof over my head, a wall to protect us from the wind, and my friends’ body heat!
Trek Day 2:
Day 2 brought a wide range of scenery. We hiked through the jungle, a few lakes, and rice fields. In each village, a few families work together to harvest their fields. It’s a nice concept.
They use water buffalo to plow the fields. Water buffalo are scary and can be aggressive. We were told not to make eye contact. When you’re told not to do something, you want to do it that much more. Plus, buffalo stare you down…daring you to make eye contact.
We met up with some rice farmers. They had a huge collection of straw. They beat the straw against rocks to get the rice out. We asked if we could help! It was really satisfying work; a great way to let off steam.
We continued our journey, and stopped in a village for lunch. We were lucky enough to see a local black smith at work. Then we got to eat in the mayor’s house. He is the mayor of a few villages, and serves for 4 years. He called us beautiful, and was delighted to have us in his home.
After lunch, we went by a school where the kids came running out to greet us. They were shouting “hellos” at us. We were getting ready to leave, when we noticed a boy of about 5 dancing. He was singing and dancing “Oppa Gangnam Style!” Probably the absolute last thing we were expecting to see.
We stopped by a shop to buy water, and for our guide to get beetle nut (kind of like chewing tobacco, but it turns your teeth red).
After this village our trail became a railway track which was surprisingly fun. If I ever learn to walk and meditate, I think it’ll have to be on a railway track.
We took a tea break at railway stop. We had Burmese tea which is this weird pseudo hot chocolate/tea. It’s amazing, but really sweet.
We ended the day in Hlasoe’s village, and we stayed at his house. His wife runs a small shop in the village, and we slept above it. Same conditions as the night before, but with more blankets!
I went to watch Hlasoe play a local sport, sepak takraw. It is sort of like volleyball. It’s a smaller court and 3 people per team. You can touch it 3 times, and it’s okay to touch it twice in a row. You can’t use your hands/arms, only feet, legs, and head. To serve, a teammate tosses the ball up for another teammate to kick it over. The ball is the size of a cantaloupe with holes in it, and is made of bamboo. They volley it like a hackie sack. It was incredible to see these men get their leg above their head, and then smash the ball with their foot to “spike” it. They play to 16…I believe.
There were 4 teams of 3. I watched from the sideline. Hlasoe’s son who is 6 sat with me. I quickly became a jungle gym to this boy and his neighbor, a 3-4 year old girl. They were both adorable and we had fun.
Trek Day 3:
Sam, Mónica, and I woke up to discover the weather had taken a turn for the worse. In addition to the cold, it was raining cats and dogs. Imagine hiking in the cold and rain. What waits for you after this hike? No change of clothes, no warm shower, no fire/heater. Needless to say, Day 3 left a lot to be desired. We ended up hiring a car to take us to our sleeping destination. Hlasoe was shocked, but it was worth every penny.
Our last overnight village was the biggest. Our host family had multiple buildings including a small hut for the kitchen, a large house (storage on the bottom and 2 rooms on top), 2 outhouses, 1 out bathing room (most villages don’t have this), and a small barn. They shuck corn for livestock feed. It’s a special kind of corn that’s extremely hard. You use a knife to pop some of the kernels off the cob; then use your thumb to work off the rest. Sam worked too hard; she got blisters on her fingers.
Trek Day 4:
Our last day started off grey and foggy. At the beginning of the day, we were surrounded by fields with many different produce. The landscape was a nature made quilt.
By the end of the day, the sun was up, and there was a lovely breeze. It was perfection. Our last kilometers were eventful. We saw massive trees that were over 500 years old, butterflies and dragonflies of all colors, and a grasshopper the size of my index finger that was yellow, blue, and green.
We ended the trek with lunch at the lake. Our favorite dish was the avocado salad! After lunch, we were introduced to our boat driver. We paid a little extra for a tour of Inle Lake.
Our boat was the Burmese long tail, most are painted black. The longtail boats for tourists have chairs with cushions . We sat single file. To me, Inle Lake is an Asian version of Amsterdam or any canal town.
We saw all the local handicrafts, and how they were made: lotus plants are used to make string that is then turned into scarves; they make paper; umbrellas; Burmese longtail boats; silver; and much more.
My absolute favorite craft was the cigars. They use dried leaves for the paper, and bamboo for the filter. They make a regular cigar which they call the “strong” cigar and a sweet cigar.
Inle Lake has floating gardens where locals grow tomatoes. They have to use a boat to gain access. Of course, there are fisherman. They balance in the stem of the boat on one leg, and use their other leg and both arms to work the net. It’s incredible. We also saw local women with neck rings used to elongate their necks.
Sam, Mónica, and I stayed 2 nights in Lake Inle. We enjoyed some much needed rest and relaxation. Our last full day together, I went on the hunt for an ATM. I needed cash. I had $2 to my name, and needed to buy a bus ticket, pay for my hotel, and eat.
I was sent on a wild goose chase. The first ATM I tried was out of service.
I asked a local, “Where can I find an ATM? This one isn’t working.” They promptly sent me to a different ATM. I went through this process 6 times. Meaning, I went to 6 ATMs and had no luck. I was panicking.
I got back to my hotel and they informed me the power was out. Lightbulb: that’s why no ATMs were working. NOT ONE person told me this. No one put 2 and 2 together for me. It’s times like this when you have to laugh at the language/cultural barriers. The power was working when I left. How was I supposed to know it goes out randomly for a period of time? The girls at reception acted like the power would be back on later, but who could tell.
Luckily, Mónica had US$ on her. She gave me US$60 and told me to pay her back when I could. It was incredibly generous. I love these random acts of kindness. They restore my faith in humanity.
Fortunately, I was able to get money out later that day.
Myanmar, thanks for the memories! Until next time.
Recently, I took a 10 day Vipassana Meditation course in Yangon, Myanmar. I really didn’t meditate before this course and decided to go for it. What I love about this Vipassana course is it’s free. It is funded solely by the old students of Vipassana. Meaning, you can donate after the course, if you would like to. They don’t pressure you into it.
The rules: No talking/communicating (No eye contact/hand gestures/notes); No writing/reading/electronics; No exercise (running/yoga); Stay for the entire length of the course; Do not leave the grounds and stay to your designated gender section (similar to prison? anyone?); No touching (others or yourself); Be Happy (They were really worried about our state of mind).
Basically, for 10 days, we would wake up, meditate for 2 hours, 1 hour break, meditate for 3 hours, 2 hour break, meditate for 4 hours, 1 hour break, meditate for 1 hour, 1 hour lecture, mediate for 1 hour. If you’re too lazy to do the math, that’s 11 hours of meditating. We would wake up at 0400 and go to sleep at 2130.
The class consisted of 70ish females and 30ish males (local and international participants). They spoke Burmese and English (not well enough to answer questions) and had video/audio lessons in many languages: English, German, Hungarian, and Russian to name a few. We were provided with basic shared accommodation (bed, toilet, cold water) and 2 meals a day (breakfast and lunch). The males and females were separated and we had our own housing, “garden” (tiny), dining hall, Pagoda entrance, and Dhamma Hall entrance. The only time we saw each other was by chance or in Dhamma Hall (women on the right and men on the left).
Upon arrival, I was given a locker, bedding, and shown to my room. I immediately looked into the bathroom and saw there was no toilet paper. I inquired about this. I was told I needed to run to the village and buy some. Not a big deal. I was glad I noticed before the course started. I ran into a Hungarian woman and we went into the village together. I made a joke, “This toilet paper is going to be like what cigarettes are to prisoners.” (Note: My knowledge of prison is what I’ve seen from tv series (mainly, Orange is the New Black) and in movies.
It amazed me the prison references that came up throughout this course. Even our teacher, the late, S.N. Goenka, made a reference in one of our video lectures.
The course started that evening after our “last supper.” We watched an introduction video, went to meditate, and the noble silence began. I was excited about the noble silence and the break from modern technology. I was bummed about the no reading and no journaling part. I accepted it though and understood the importance of 100% focus on the mind.
I was not expecting the Noble Silence to be difficult. It wasn’t so much difficult as strange. Imagine having a new roommate you’ve never met before. Now, imagine not being able to communicate in any way with them. It was challenging not to make eye contact with my roommate, ask about her lighting preferences, showering needs, or her preference for the fan setting; I hated not being able to say “Goodnight” or “Good morning”. All these things made me uncomfortable for a day or so. Then you adapt and you realize it’s kind of nice. You and your roommate are super sensitive to each other, you’re both trying your best to be considerate, and you’re paying extra attention to each other’s needs. You learn things about each other without talking and it’s incredible!
I was expecting to feel hungry. It took me a couple of days not to gorge myself at both meals. My routine was to eat as fast as I could and go nap. I loved my morning nap! The food was better than I expected it to be. In the morning, we’d have some type of soup with noodles, fruit, tea (this weird, but good hot chocolate tea), and white bread (the most processed bread I’ve ever had). For lunch, we’d have rice, a couple of veggie dishes, tofu dish, soup, yogurt, and fruit. Tea/dinner, consisted of juice that was barely drinkable and these globs of something sugary (can’t remember the name).
Our room: 2 beds with thin mats, 2 small side tables, a toilet room, a shower room (cold water), and a fan. It was basic, but comfortable. The idea is you are living like a nun or monk would live. You are given food and basic accommodation like monks and nuns are given.
We were assigned seats in the dining hall and in Dhamma Hall. The assistant teachers were having trouble with names, so our names quickly became our room numbers. I was now known as DR-4, 26 (age).
Dhamma Hall was spacious and had a/c. The a/c was a blessing, but not used properly (in my opinion). I think they did that on purpose. The name of the game is to make you just comfortable enough so you won’t complain. They give you just enough meals, so you won’t starve; they let you sleep just enough; they use the a/c just enough so you’re not boiling.
The most difficult part about Day 1 was the wake up call. I incorporated the gong (wake up call) into my dreams. Then jumped out of bed disoriented. Once I realized where I was, Day 1 was a breeze. I didn’t wear my watch, because I knew I’d look at it every 5 seconds. On Day 1, I was still excited and used that momentum to carry me through. At the end of Day 1, we watched a lecture. Our video lecturer, Goenka, told us Day 2 and Day 6 (I believe) would be the most difficult. Boy was that an understatement.
Day 2 was horrible. It felt like they were torturing us on purpose. We lost power during the heat of the day…no a/c in Dhamma hall. Did I mention that the meditation center is located in Yangon which is hot and humid? Then we ran out of running water. Of course, this was the day I needed to wash my hair. Oops, what’s one more day? Your body hurts from trying to sit crossed legged for 11 hours. Your brain hurts from trying to concentrate for 11 hours. Your stomach hurts, because you ate too much. Then it hurts, because you’re starving. Of course, you try to let all this roll off you and just breath. It felt like the center was playing a mind game with me and the center was winning. I kept thinking how the hell will I survive 8 more days of this.
After Day 2, the days blur together because I was unable to journal. I will say this, every day I had moments of “this is wonderful, I can’t wait to do this course again.” Then I had moments like this, “F*** this!! I’m never doing this again.”
The most challenging part for me was that I was never alone. I need/want alone time. You would think 10 day vow of silence = alone time, but it didn’t. We were constantly being watched by our assistant teachers. If I went to my room, there was a good chance my roommate would be there (where else could she go?). If I went for a walk, the “garden” was tiny and at least 5-10 other people were walking too.
Finally, on Day 7, I arrived in Dhamma Hall to find a note by my pillow. This note assigned me to cell #28. I was allowed to meditate here for 1.5 hours after lunch and when the teacher permitted. I had a difficult time not laughing out loud when I read the strip of paper. It literally said “cell #28.” After all my prison comparisons, of course it was finally time for me to be put in a cell.
Our cells were located inside the Pagoda; I was ecstatic to get into my cell and be alone for over an hour. Then they said, “Do not close the door to your cell.” Inside, I was screaming, “NOOOO!” You’re probably thinking so what? Not closing the door, no big deal. Think again. They walk by like hall monitors and it’s extremely distracting. It’s just another reminder that you’re not truly alone, because they are watching you. For 3 days, I got to meditate in my cell 2 times a day. I would crack the door open about a foot to make it as isolating as possible.
Confessions: During our evening lecture, the English speaking video was held in the men’s dining hall. The first 2 days of the course, the boys sat on the right and the girls sat on the left. On Day 3, the boys section was moved to the front and the girls sat behind them. I thought, “hm, that’s odd.” After the course, a group of us (males/females) went out for drinks. The boys explained that they were looking at us too much during the video lecture. Therefore, they were moved to the front of the hall as a punishment. I will say thinking back, I definitely saw them trying to be nonchalant and look back at us; not to mention we (the girls) enjoyed the view! The guys joked that they’d get to the lecture hall early so they could see us walk in. Do you think we were depriving ourselves of anything? #raginghormones
We were allowed to talk half way through Day 10. A part of me missed the silence, but it was nice to see that everyone went through similar struggles. We all knew each other from visual cues (examples: cute pants, if someone had been sick, or someone cried, etc.). We all had trouble focusing for 11 hours and we all had amazing sex fantasies while meditating (sorry I’m not sorry!).
Overall, I’m happy with the course. They taught meditation more than preached about a way of life. Would I do another 10 day course? I’m undecided. I do want to incorporate meditation into my life. It’s been difficult so far. I’ve only meditated a handful of times since leaving. I couldn’t believe how quickly, I lost my ability to focus the mind. It was like taking 1,000 steps backwards. As the saying goes, if you don’t use it you loose it.
When I tell people about this course, they get caught up on 10 day vow of silence. Saying, “Oh, I could never do 10 days of silence, maybe 3.” The silent part is not the difficult part. Trust me, you need 10 days to get a taste of what meditating is like. You don’t glimpse the proper sensations until day 7 at the earliest. If you are interested in meditating I would definitely recommend a 10 day Vipsanna course.
All pictures were taken after the course was over.