Back in Time in Myanmar (Burma)

The most glaring difference between a developed and developing country?  The earthy tones of the landscape, clouded by the dust and dirt kicked up on a daily basis.  Myanmar was definitely the earthiest I’ve visited.  The country, despite being the second largest in Southeast Asia by landmass, has been one of the slowest to develop due to political strife.  A majority of the population is Buddhist and Burmese temples are a massive draw.

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Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon (capital city)-said to contain 8 Buddha hairs

 

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Shwedagona Pagoda, oldest pagoda in the world at 2600 yrs old.  Gold plated dome topped by a stupa containing 7000 diamonds, rubies, topaz, and sapphires (Burma is gem rich)

Bagan is Burma’s temple capital, rivaling Angkorwat in its grandeur without the crowds.  The best form of transport around Bagan was a horse drawn carriage.  Plodding along the dirt roads, I felt like I was in a different era.  The entire city was tinged in shades reminiscent of the older parts of Laos or Cambodia.   Well preserved and uncorrupted, sunset views from Shwe San Daw Pagoda reveal a landscape littered with temples as far as the eye can see.

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Sunset in Bagan

 

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Gyubyauk  Gyi Temple-Built in 1113 AD, one of the finest temples in the early period, decorated with carvings on the exterior and jataka paintings on the interior

Myanmar or Burma? Burma’s name was officially changed by the ruling junta to Myanmar in 1989, but considering my old Burmese roommate still refers it to Burma, so do I.  The names have the same meaning, but Burma is a colloquial form the locals tend to still use.

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Mandalay palace, the last royal Burmese palace

 

 

Stupas are Buddhist monuments used to house relics, commemorate Buddhist events, and offer a place for meditation.   They are typically dome shaped with a spire rising out on top.  Positively stupefying.

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Sandamuni Pagoda, Mandalay
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Sandamuni Pagoda, Mandalay

 

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Burmese food-sampling of lovely curries

Back in 2009 the most popular billboards around town were of lubricant oil, an industry thriving from maintaining second hand imported cars.  As a result of these imports, the driver’s side of the car is on the complete opposite side of expectation.  Burma actually switched from driving on the left side during British colonial days to driving on the right.  In most countries the steering wheel would be placed on the left, but the second hand imports have steering wheels on the right.  Just one of the ways traveling reminds us that conventions, sometimes arbitrary, can be meddled with.

 

Gems of Rio de Janeiro

I first got to know Rio through the riotous lens of a Carnivale, but I promised myself I’d find out what local life was like.   So I stayed in Rio for 3 weeks. Here are a few of my favorite discoveries:

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Lagoon, photo credit Ana Carolina do Nascimento Guimaraes

Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas-A lagoon with a paved 7.5 km (>4.5mile) bike/running path lined with sports clubs.   I wouldn’t get in the water, mind you, because before the Olympics, water tests showed high levels of sewage and related viruses.  But this was my favorite way to knockout the daily jog.  The path is mostly treelined,  and even though I usually tolerate running only if I’m running after something, I felt pretty good about trying to complete the loop.  There were usually a few good looking folks running or walking, for an extra little motivation to keep going.

acai.jpgAcai – Before I’d heard about Oprah promoting acai as a superfood, I was experiencing it as my daily nourishment.  Brazilians love their corner fresh fruit juice stands, which always stock half frozen treats made with their Amazonian staple, acai fruit.  At first the consistency reminded me of 7-eleven slushees, and this half frozen version is inevitably sweetened, but it’s still brimming with antioxidants.  It’s practically a thicker form of sorbet, a bit like having a superfood ice pop.  Acai doesn’t export very well, and getting to eat the local flavor is a must for any visitor.

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Arpoador-The beaches of Brazil can’t be missed-they have it all: sun, sand, surf, and gorgeous eye candy.  Ipanema and Copacabana have been made most famous by their eponymous songs, but it’s this little bit of sand and cliff called Arpoador in between those beaches that I started calling home.   A popular surf spot, this area also has some of the best sunset views.  Muscle Beach calls this place home.

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Capoeira– a combination of martial arts, dance, and music.   If there ever was an art form evoking Zoolander’s “They’re breakdance fighting!”, this would be it.  To immerse myself in this local dance, I practiced capoeira at a local school daily in the evenings.  We danced barefoot on concrete in what seemed like an open air parking garage.  Everyone spoke mostly Portuguese and acted incredibly warm and welcoming, even encouraging me to showcase my clumsy moves.

 

The Will to Live

It’s been 10 years to the week of my father’s passing.  Although he was terminally ill, everyone in the family was attempting to live with a degree of normalcy-chemo treatments, endless doctor appointments, the shrunken apparition of my Dad notwithstanding.  I’d even moved to Hong Kong and my parents planned a visit from the US, presumably approved by the doctors.  There’s no way to tell if that was really a good idea, but with terminally ill patients, the bar is usually fairly high for doctors to step in and intrude on the patient’s wishes.  At least in the US.

There’s something called optimism bias that keeps most people going in life, the idea that the future holds more promise than the past, and that life keeps getting better.  Out of all of the things taken away from a terminally ill patient, this can perhaps be the most debilitating.

My father was hospitalized twice during his stay here.  The first time he was feeling weak, and we admitted him at a hospital on Victoria’s peak.  It was a nondescript hospital called Matilda practically perched in the clouds, known for a high quality standard of care.  Getting there involved taking a car up winding tree lined roads, as if ascending to a forested vacation rental.  After a brief stay we brought him back to my home, and life went on as usual for a few more days.

“I think something’s wrong with your Dad.”

I rushed into the master bedroom framed by the picturesque harbour, with a sea view so deep that anyone on the bed could have pretended it was about to set sail.  My Dad was laying motionless and unresponsive on his side, as if an errant dingy waiting to cast off, but without a rudder or captain.  His eyes were wide open, and he didn’t look panicked, but he couldn’t move and despite the blinking, was clearly not responding cognitively.

We rushed him to the nearest public hospital immediately.  As he was wheeled in, being the practical one in the family , I squeezed my mom’s hand and quickly reminded her of the “do not resuscitate” order my Dad had signed.  The DNR is meant to save the dying from harsh treatment during resuscitation attempts.  So this could be it.  Although I was trying to prepare my mom for that possibility, I now realize that by focusing on my mom, I was actively deflecting the need to prepare myself for the same possibility.

But he turned out to be “ok”, as far as we knew.  They told us that his glucose levels had just dropped to the point where he was physically unable to function.  Asking further questions didn’t seem to lead anywhere, which may have been a result of the language barrier.  English was not the first language for anyone on staff and neither was Mandarin.   If we asked what was going to happen, the staff would generally refer to the fact that he had stage 4 cancer.  No sh*t Sherlock.   Dad was coherent again though, and he looked tired but could at least broadly communicate.

One of the English speaking doctors came through, and Dad, sporting that practical streak, asked, “So, what about my flight back home (to the US in a week).”  The doctor looked at him a bit blankly and said, “Oh you can’t go.”  My parents have always been masters of the innuendo, sometimes a bit afraid to clarify, but always prone to interpret news in the worst possible way.  His crestfallen face said it all.  He did want, or he did need to ask for more details, but the only words that made it out of his mouth were “I..can’t..go..home?”  The doctor confirmed definitively and when pressed just repeated the familiar mantra that he was weak and had stage 4 cancer.

HK public hospitals are generally known for quality medical care, but now I know that towards the end, communication is the most important aspect of medical care.  I remember sitting in a stairway crying to my boss about how poor the communication was. Quite possibly,I’ve since harboured a deep resentment for that Grim Reaper, MD, or even HK in general.  Yet at the time I still wasn’t thinking about the gravity of the situation.  We could have transferred my Dad back to that sanctuary in the clouds, but I hadn’t translated “weak” into “he’s dying as we speak.”  In my heart I believed it was like the first hospitalization, where he would be released after a few nights of recovery.  As for the flight, the doctor was probably just waiting to give my Dad the green light.  But I’d seen my Dad’s look and I was already looking up the cost of an international air ambulance.  Maybe there was a bit of cognitive dissonance though, because someone eventually called my sister and asked her to come..and it must have been me.  Dad got on the phone with my sister briefly and smiled at the sound of her voice, but over the next 24 hours slowly wilted away, his breath fading.

I was the only one with him when he left us in the middle of the night.  I ran out into the hallway, thinking about calling for help, but realizing it was fruitless.  The rage in me rose like a tidal wave.  Would he have died here if the doctors hadn’t taken away hope?  How could the doctors have been so cavalier with a man’s life!

In the aftermath there were enough logistics issues to keep me distracted, and we realized that no one had discussed with my Dad the taboo topic of how he wanted to go.  My mom, sister, and I stayed together for about a week, trying to make sense of what had happened, most likely thinking that the future was sure to be brighter than those days.  My mom looked like she’d aged 10 years overnight.

I’m now renting an apartment in the same building my Dad spent his last vacation in.   Not because I’ve been here the whole time, but somehow 10 years later I’ve crossed a few oceans and still come back full circle.  The area has been right in the path of development, and new buildings, restaurants have sprung up and it’s now brimming with expats.   This time I’m raising a bright, joyful baby here because I met my husband in Hong Kong.  Because sometimes those dark days do turn to light.

 

Rio de Janeiro Highlights

As the curtain closes on the 2016 summer olympics, here’s a look at the hot spots to see in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Christ The Redeemer – One of the new 7 Wonders of the World, this 38m tall statue embraces the city with open arms from Corcovado mountain.

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View from Cristo

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Sugar Loaf-Named during the height of the sugar cane trade, when sugar was molded into cones, this granite and quartz mountain is located in Guanabara Bay.  The famed cable car ride provides incredible views of the city.

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View at dusk with Cristo in the distance

Hanggliding-I booked with EasyflyRio, who called me when it was the best time to fly.  The weather was gorgeous and off we went from Pedra Bonita, above The Parque Nacional de Floresta de Tijuca.  Literally the birds eye view of Rio’s beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Barra da Tijuca), Christ the Redeemer, the Sugar Loaf, etc…  beachwow.JPG

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paraglider in the distance

 

Arpoador Cliff (between Ipanema and Copacabana)-If you’ve ever wondered how Arpoador got its name, well today’s your lucky day.   Arpoar is the portuguese word meaning “to harpoon” and an arpoador is one who harpoons. Back in the day when whaling was popular, this area was the best spot to scope them out.  It’s also a great viewpoint for the sunset.

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Overlooking Ipanema beach
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Overlooking Copacabana beach

Favelas -Makeshift housing built by the homeless that have developed into full scale communities.  If all favelas in Rio were combined, the population would comprise Brazil’s 9th largest city.  Rocinha is Rio’s largest and most densely packed favela, and several tours are offered during the daytime.  This Brazilian slum is perched among the hills, proffering sparkling views of the rich towns underneath.  It’s best to go on an organized tour with someone who lives or works in the favela, but it’s safe to visit and a stark look at the communities left behind.

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View from Rocinha

 

And of course don’t forget the draw of Carnivale…stay tuned for that lowdown