sunset

The Sun Will Always Rise Again

If I have found one constant around the world it is this simple fact: the sun will always set, and it will always rise again.

I have watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Andaman Sea, Lake Yamanaka, Laguna Bacalar, the Wörthersee, and the Amazon River. I have watched it rise over the Himalayas, the Kaikoura Ranges, Mount Rinjani, Volcan de Agua, the boulders in Hampi, the Temples of Angkor, the Temples of Bagan, the skyline of downtown San Francisco, and the rolling hills of Vermont.

The end of the day, the beginning of one. Sunsets and sunrises are events that encourage reflection, or at the very least taking a pause and admiring the beauty of nature. Sunsets are beautiful scenes, but I have discovered a personal preference for sunrises. The start of something new. The chance to begin again. When the sun sets on one phase, it rises on another.

If I have found one preference around the world it is this: I like the mountains.

Anyone who has read my posts over the past two years knows my affinity for rocky terrain. I love a good beach trip as much as anyone, but I can only last there for so long. Put me in a tiny mountain village, surrounded by nature so impressive all you can do is look up, and I will be happy. If there is water near by – a lake surrounded by hills, for example – I may never leave. From my family’s roots in Vermont and Austria to my homes in San Francisco and Antigua to some of my favorite travel destinations in New Zealand and Myanmar and Japan, the constant is mountains, often accompanied by water.

So it should be no surprise that, two days before leaving Antigua, two days before I uprooted a life in search of the next adventure, I got another tattoo memorializing all of this. Two years of travel, two years of not knowing where I would end up next, two years of the sun setting on one place and rising on another, in a lifetime of the sun setting on one phase and rising on another. My Antigua phase was over. My Travel Abrodge felt like it was coming to an end. I was hoping to return to stability, a hope I never knew I would want again but there it was. My sun was setting on my nomadic life. But it will rise again on another.

I never want to forget how important this philosophy has been to me. And now I never will.

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El Mirador: The Long Post About Where I Went, How I Got There, and What I Did

Any time I disappear on an multi-day excursion into nature I never know how to begin to write about it when I get back. Do I start with the facts: where did I go, how did I get there, what did I do? Or do I start with the deep revelations that inevitably happen when I have ample time to think about life? Or do I start with the tips for other travelers post: the do’s, don’t’s, and just-so-you-know’s of such an excursion?

Already breaking it down into those three questions outlines the three blog posts that have to be written about my El Mirador experience (although whether the second will be posted is yet to be decided). So I’ll start with the facts post. I apologize in advance: this is going to be a long one.

Where did I go?

El Mirador is one of the oldest and largest Mayan sites. In its heyday it was the capital city, home to more than 200,000 people but in charge of a million. It preceded many of the more well-known Mayan sites like Tikal and Palenque. It was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago, and since then nature has taken over. Most of El Mirador is still hidden underneath a dense jungle that turned its stone buildings into vegetated hills.

There are two ways to reach Mirador: by helicopter or by walking. The nearest town is Carmelita, which is 40 km away. The five-day hike goes as follows: Day 1, 17 km, camp at El Tintal; Day 2, 23 km, camp at Mirador; Day 3, explore Mirador, camp at Mirador; Day 4, 23 km back the same route as Day 2, camp at El Tintal again; Day 5, same 17 km hike back to Carmelita, then a 4-hour bus back to Flores. Round trip it’s 80 km of fairly level but intensely jungle trekking.

Or as Chip Brown from Smithsonian Magazine describes it: “… two or three days to get from the end of the road at Carmelita to El Mirador: long hours of punishing heat and drenching rain, of mud and mosquitoes, and the possibility that the jungle novice […] might step on a lethal fer-de-lance or do some witless city thing to provoke a jaguar or arouse the ire of the army ants inhabiting the last great swath of subtropical rain forest in Mesoamerica.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

How did I get there?

Mirador was first brought to my attention in a short article I read unknown months ago in an unknown publication (I seem to have forgotten those details). The author described a challenging trek through the wild jungle to Mayan ruins that were not seen by many tourist eyes. Given my penchant for the jungle and ruins – the Amazon, Angkor Wat, and Bagan all rank among my favorite experiences of last year – this sounded right up my alley. So even though the details of the publication may have escaped me, I never forgot this mystical place called El Mirador.

Fast forward to Bacalar and the realization that Flores was geographically on the way to Palenque. I had grown weary of the tourist trail already so the idea of removing myself from it for a few days to be in quiet nature sounded perfect. The athletic activity was also a draw; a few days lounging on a dock were lovely but I was yearning for some movement. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Cassidy decided to come with me. Without her I was facing doing the hike alone, which would have been awfully boring, or with a random group that could have been personality or pace mismatches. Cassidy and I already knew we got along, although five days was quite the test of that and we were lucky to have passed, but what we didn’t know and were happy to discover was that we walk at exactly the same pace: fast and non-stop.

Booking El Mirador was a bit of a leap of faith. We’d done some online research but it was hard to find any definitive agency to book through, so we had two options: go with the Hostel Los Amigos, or with the travel agent who had jumped on our bus on the way into town. Long story short, that will be discussed in a separate post, we ended up going with Luis the agent. Something felt less commercial about it, and we trusted that he was looking out for us. We made a couple of changes to the usual tour by opting to bring our own food – something they suggested (required) for Cassidy since she’s vegan – and hiring an English guide, which is an extra expense that I would recommend to anyone who isn’t fluent in Spanish and who cares to know anything about Mirador. Having secured the logistics, all that was left to do was spend longer than most people probably would in the grocery store deciding what we would eat for the next five days.

If you had told me I would do a five day intense hike on a vegan diet I would have said you were sorely mistaken. But that’s just what I did and let me tell you, I felt great. Maybe there is something to this Veganism thing… Here’s what a vegan eats on a hiking trip: cereal bars and apples or canned peaches for breakfast; peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch; nuts and Oreo’s for snacks; tortillas with black or refried beans, avocado, carrots, and cucumbers for dinner; and lots and lots of hot cocoa. Pretty tasty stuff. The added bonus of bringing our own food was that we were able to eat whenever we wanted, unlike the other groups who had to wait until they got to camp at 3:00 pm the first day to have lunch. I would have been seriously hangry by then.

What did I do?

Monday morning, 5:00 am. Time to go. With such an early departure I hoped to sleep on the four-hour bus ride to Carmelita. I think I managed some semi-conscious state, a miracle only possible by sheer exhaustion; the bus felt like all the components of the Epcot Test Track ride were happening at once. It wasn’t just bumpy, we were tossed side to side as well as up and down. Any time I opened my eyes the interior had a new crowd: first I was alone in the seat, then it was packed like sardines with people standing in the aisles, then I had a family of three in the seat with me including a breastfeeding baby. Any hopes of beginning this daunting trek well-rested went out the vibrating window. When we arrived in Carmelita we lingered long enough to have breakfast and load the horse (a sad reality of the trek, the horses all looked quite worn); by 10:30 off we went with our two guides, one Spanish speaker from Carmelita and one English interpreter who had only done the trek two times before.

The first day was all about one thing: mud. A recent rainfall had turned the path into a veritable mud pit that tried to steal our shoes right off of our feet and, when unsuccessful, latched on to create a second heavy sole of earth. Thankfully it dried up about halfway, and despite the slow start we still made it to camp in 4.5 hours. 17 km down.

Here’s how camp generally worked: arrive in the afternoon exhausted, make warm beverage (tea from leaves or cocoa), play Rummy Infinity – El Mirador Tournament of Maya Champions (aka the Rummy 500 game we kept up the whole trip; final scores: 3190 to 3755), make dinner, join with other group for Cambio card game (there was another trio doing the trek at the same time as us who we never hiked with but always saw at the campsites), go to bed.

Night one I experienced what I think of as my first most terrifying, near-death jungle experience. I woke up in the middle of the night, unhappily having drank too much leaf tea and needing to creep out of my tent into the total darkness that only exists in the most remote places. Maybe 10 minutes after returning to my tent I heard padded footsteps and a low growl. My mind had one thought: jaguar. I froze, played dead inside my tent, as if that would help protect me from an animal that hunts by smell. I have no idea how much time passed with my heart racing and my body petrified until I saw a headlamp walking confidently towards the bathroom. I figured it was gone then, and somehow fell asleep. The next morning I asked Leon if there were jaguars there, to which he replied, “Yes, I saw one here a few months ago. There’s one big one and one small one here.” Holy. Shit.

The second day was all about animals. We were proper in the jungle now. In the first 15 minutes I became one of the luckiest people in the jungle: I saw an ocelot. It was on the path about 30 yards in front of us for just a quick second before disappearing into the trees, but I remember it like it was a picture I’d seen a thousand times. Ocelots are not big for wild cats but they definitely look wild. It reminded me of the (frozen) bobcat I’d seen this summer in Vermont. We also saw sereke, cojolita, and some playful or evil spider monkeys who tried to shake water off of the treetops onto us. Before the end of the trail we stopped at La Muerta, a crypt ruin, and the site of my second most terrifying, near-death jungle experience.

“Go in to the left, there are bats,” Leon told me. Bats, no big deal, I can go see some bats. When I made it into the dark crypt my headlamp lit up one giant black scorpion spider on the wall to my left. My minor arachnophobia made me pause, but I took a breath and went in. It’s not like it was next to me. To my right I saw a bat. Then underneath it I saw a group of bugs that looked like the ones in the Mummy that crawl under your skin and eat you alive. I let out a small shriek, but sadly that was not the worst part of this exploration. When I turned back around my light illuminated the rest of the crypt, and I saw the real terror: many more huge black scorpion spiders dotted the walls, including one that was moving right next to my head. That was it, time to get the hell out of there. I crawled out as fast as possible, breaking into a run once I was in the open air and a spastic dance to mentally shake them off of me. Leon laughed at me and said he had to see what it was that scared me so much, so he grabbed his flashlight and went in. When he came back out he again said the least reassuring thing possible, “That is the only spider in the jungle that scares me. If that bites you, you don’t come out alive.”

After 5 hours and 10 minutes of walking 23 km, we arrived at Mirador. We started big: sunset at the top of La Danta, the largest pyramid in the world. La Danta was the perfect introduction to El Mirador. Standing in front of it today it’s hard to image what it looked like when it was built; it looks like a tree-covered hill. But as we started to climb I saw some stepped areas that were covered by tarps, a hint of the excavation process and of what was ahead. At the tops of these pyramids the Mayans built temples in threes – one large one in center and two smaller ones flanking it – to symbolize maize, beans, and squash, the three main agricultural crops. At La Danta the three pyramids are still mostly covered, but at El Tigre one is visible, and it is a beautiful glimpse into what it looked like so many years ago.

We climbed to the top of the tallest pyramid on La Danta, marveling at the way nature had grown over and around it. When we reached the summit I couldn’t hold it in: wow. Just wow. The view stretched out before us for miles, and it was all jungle trees. In the near distance we could see the top of El Tigre, the other large pyramid in El Mirador, which is just a mountain of flora, and in the far distance we could see the pyramid at El Tintal where we had been the day before, another mountain of flora. It seemed impossible that we had walked so far in that one day. We sat at the top and watched the day come to a close. We high fived. We made it, and it was everything I hoped it would be.

The next day started early with sunrise on top of La Danta. I was happy to have done the walk in light the night before; now I knew what we were in for. Unfortunately the sky did not cooperate for sunrise like it had for sunset; it was a wall of clouds. The howler monkeys at least added an interesting soundtrack to the non-scene. All morning we wandered the hidden city with our guides, who told us the uses of structures and meanings behind carvings to the best of their ability. Cassidy and I, both being Art History majors, tested our guides’ knowledge by asking tons of questions about everything. Personally it was a joy to have another person with me who was just as interested to find out if this government building was on a civic plaza.

Mirador is fascinating but takes a lot of imagination. My mind had a hard time grasping what it looked like when it was a city of stone buildings in a cleared landscape. Parts of structures were covered by translucent temporary roofs as they underwent restoration. A carving was redone next to a blank area that had yet to be worked on, and I found it hard to understand how whoever did it could possibly know what it looked like before. But this is all part of the appeal of Mirador, seeing it at such a juncture between past and present, nature and mankind, wild and tamed.

We closed out Mirador with another gorgeous sunset. We still had two days and 40 km to go, but that didn’t matter yet. All that mattered at that moment was that view, that magical place, that feeling of being one of the lucky few who had made it out to this ancient, important site, that feeling of being a small part of this wonderful world.

I try to remember that moment when I think about El Mirador, and not the last two days. Day four we basically ran the 23 km in 4:40. The mosquitoes were out in full force, we were grossly covered with four days of sweat, our guides tried to get us to walk all the way back to Carmelita in one day (we shut that down real fast), our tents were not set up when they were supposed to be despite our leaving early to get a good spot, our tortillas disappeared, and our normally quiet night time was crowded with a bunch of new groups. Day five we ignored our exhaustion and walked the 17 km nonstop in 4 hours. How we picked up the pace the last two days I’ll never understand. Maybe it was the prospect of being out of that damn jungle and into a shower. When the road of Carmelita was in site we broke out into a run to greet it. It was a trying last two days, but El Mirador must be earned. It wouldn’t be a real jungle trek without some hard times, right?

After the agonizingly long and hot bus ride back to Flores, two back to back showers, ample anti-itch cream, and a pot of chai tea in Los Amigos’s garden, I thought back to where I had just been. The hike itself wasn’t too challenging, but the jungle is a tough place to be for so long. I was glad to be out of it but more so glad to have done it. El Mirador is impossible to rank with the other popular Mayan sites, and maybe that is the allure of it. It stands alone in its wonder.

Flores and Tikal

I got off the bus in Flores and had to remind myself where I was: Guatemala. I had moved countries. That’s the thing about making such last-minute decisions – they don’t really have time to sink in before you find yourself standing in the dark on a cobblestone street being asked what hostel you’re going to. Hostel? Right, we had to find one of those. Cassidy had a recommendation, which matched the friendly travel agent’s who accompanied us into town, so off we went. It didn’t take long to find Los Amigos, since Flores is a tiny island whose circumference can be walked in no more than 10 minutes, and once inside it didn’t take long to reunite with the girls from Bacalar. The gringo trail is strong in Latin America.

Too exhausted from the full day bus journey (we had to pass through Belize, meaning two border crossings with four passport stamp stops), we decided to dine on the surprisingly good but totally overpriced international fare at Los Amigos, and only made it through one giant Jenga game at the Night Bar before succumbing to sleep. In the loft. Because apparently real beds are just too easy, so I decided to sleep on a pad on the floor above a real dorm room, covered by a peaked roof but sans walls and doors. The sacrifices we make to save Quetzales.

My time in Flores was focused on two things: 1) Arranging the trek to El Mirador; 2) Seeing Tikal. Arranging the trek took most of our first day – a topic that will get its own post soon – but we were able to secure a Monday morning departure (it was Saturday). We celebrated our success at Jorge’s Rope Swing, a chill place on the edge of the lagoon with hammocks, tubes, a surprisingly daunting platform to jump off of (my estimate is 8 meters), and, you guessed it, a couple of rope swings. We had a solid group of 9, a combination of former Green Monkey residents and bus trip buddies, who casually changed positions between land and water until the dazzling sunset signaled our return to the island.

Sunday was Tikal day, and Tikal does take the greater part of a day. We opted for the sunset tour, having heard about the struggle our friends endured for the sunrise tour, complete with 4 am departures and cloud-covered skies, and were picked up at noon. The ride to get there was hot and long, and the guide was not in any rush to get started, but once we did begin we were treated to stories about Mayan history and details of what we were seeing. It was well worth going with the English-speaking guide.

Tikal is gorgeous. It’s a great mixture of the kinds of ruins I’ve seen: it’s out in the jungle and not totally uncovered, but what is restored is jaw-dropping. The main positive about going on the sunset tour was being able to take our time exploring the site on the way to the tallest temple, as opposed to the morning when you go directly to the tallest one and work backward. We saw lots of wildlife on the walk in through the jungle, from toucans to spider monkeys to some relative of the raccoon whose name I forget, but did not see many other people, thankfully. There’s a lot to explore at Tikal, lots to climb up and around, which put it at the top of my ruins list thus far. Plus Temple 1, the one on all the postcards, is actually that pretty in real life. We were sitting in a grassy plaza surrounded by two towering temples and two multi-room complexes built up on hills when the colorful, strangest-looking turkeys I’ve ever seen came over to say hello. It was one of those scenes that is almost too good to believe, one that makes me think “wow I’m here right now.”

As sunset approached we climbed the tallest pyramid at Tikal for an overwhelming view of the jungle expanse beyond, with the tops of two temples peeking out in the near distance. Then we went to the oldest pyramid for the main event, which we had to earn by climbing up one of the more challenging ancient staircases I’ve ever ascended. Why people who were so short built such steep giant stairs I will never understand. Were they meant to be climbed like a ladder? Did they actually go up these? The climb was of course worth it. From our perch we could see the sun setting over the jungle, with the tops of the other pyramids lit up around us. The moon was just a few nights from full on our walk back out. We caught a glimpse of it behind Temple 1, which created an eerie, mystical scene that made me feel like I could understand a bit better the Maya’s fascination with the sky.

Flores itself though is not to be discounted. I’d heard that it wasn’t worth staying in for more than a day, it was just a launching point for Tikal, but I was charmed by its tiny size and the colorful buildings and cobblestone streets that covered it. If they promoted it well, Flores could really be a tourist destination itself. But hopefully that wouldn’t ruin my favorite part of town: the tostada stands. Every night at the water’s edge five stands set up that all sell the same things: tamales, burritos (the tiny Guatemalan version), empanadas, jugos, cakes the size of the one Miss Trunchbull made Bruce finish, and the highlight, 3 for 5Q tostadas. My personal favorite was the beets, but others preferred the noodles, and the carne wasn’t too shabby either. We went there for our second, third, and final dinners in Flores, and if I ever go back I will go again.

 

Go to Hampi

I had one more place I had to see in India before I could leave. Travelers around the world said I had to go to Hampi; even when I was debating just staying in Goa for my last few days, expats who loved Goa enough to make it their new home still told me I had to go to Hampi. So in a final push, despite my tired frustration with India transportation, I committed to going to Hampi.

Thank god I did.

Hampi was everything I’ve loved on this trip. It was beautiful, nature, history, architecture, new friends, middle of nowhere, motorbikes, sunrises and sunsets, effortless enjoyment, peaceful, an instant connection, and a hard place to leave.

I arrived as the sun was rising, sometime around 6 am, with a business card for a recommended guest house from a traveler in Hampi whose address was “On the Other Side of the River.” This is how everyone told me where I should stay: the other side of the river. But what side of the river had I been dropped off on? Was this the side or the other side?

After talking to one of the many rickshaw drivers who had swarmed the bus, I found out we were on the Other Side. So I set off with two new friends who I’d just met getting our luggage off the bus, Sam and Guy, to find Manju’s Place. We skeptically reached the end of the street and were directed to a small path cutting through a rice field. That way? That way. As soon as we decided to go for it I could have cared less whether or not the hostel was at the end of this route – it was – walking down this dirt path flanked by green rice plants as the sun was rising over hills made out of boulders was one of the best arrivals to anywhere I’ve been. It was a sign of what was to come.

Manju’s was the perfect place to stay. We each had our own little clay hut, complete with double bed and mosquito net, in a clearing surrounded by palm trees. The common spaces were two covered pavilions with cushions on the floor, welcoming lounging day and night. And every time I went anywhere I had two choices: walk through the rice field or along the river. There was no bad choice.

The river walk was our next discovery. After we checked in we went to find breakfast and chose to go this other route. We climbed down through trees and overgrown bushes so we couldn’t see what was up ahead, but when we popped out the other side we all gasped and laughed at the beauty of the scene in front of us. More mountains of boulders glowed in the dawn light, as did the tall Virupaksha temple and all of the ancient ruins across the river. I think this was the moment we all fell in love with Hampi.

Most of my three days in Hampi were spent ogling my surroundings. One day was dedicated to walking around the immediate area across the river, climbing up and around the scattered ruins, trying to imagine what this place was like in its heyday. We paused in our explorations to watch dozens of monkeys run around on the walls and temples. Even after months of monkeys and temples there was something different about this sight. I was mesmerized. We ended the day on the hill for sunset. Kids came by offering chai and lemon juice, and a group of about 50 gathered to play music. Apparently sunset is the big event of the day every day and I could see why: the view, the vibe, it was all perfect.

The second day started with sunrise again, back up on the rocks. This time it was just me and Sam watching the day begin. Then it was time for more temples further outside of Hampi town. We gave in and took a rickshaw, it was 41 degrees Celsius (that’s 105 Fahrenheit) and they were pretty far away. Our driver was stunned when we spent three hours at the first place, Vithala Temple. I was happily surprised by how amazed I was. Again, I’ve seen my fair share of temples lately, but something about this place was different. The amount of detail was incredible, the carvings ornate, delicate and sturdy at the same time, and the subterranean walk around the center was eerie and breathtaking. We roamed two more places – the Queen’s Bath and the Lotus Mahal – before returning to Manju’s exhausted, sweaty, and thoroughly satisfied. Everything we saw was beautiful and worth making it out to.

The third day was my third sunrise, this time at the river by myself. It was my last real morning in India (I would be on an overnight train that night on my way to my flight out of Delhi) and I wanted to give it the proper goodbye. Sometimes I do these solo sunrises and usually I find them peaceful, contemplative, rejuvenating. But this was India, and instead of the total clarity that I usually experience I was worried about the pack of stray dogs trying to get close to my perch, and then the two men wandering close by with no one else around. Couldn’t you just give me one moment of happy peace? Nope. So in some way I suppose it was a good end to India. It felt like it was time to leave.

But first I had one final day of adventuring in Hampi. Sam had rented a motorbike, so we jumped on and went in search of the lake people had mentioned. Turns out it’s a reservoir with a crocodile – swim at your own risk – so we just enjoyed a picnic on the shore. It was still pretty, like everything in Hampi. Riding around on the bike was a highlight in itself: we were on a road lined by palm trees winding through more rice fields with boulder mountain backgrounds. We drove behind a truck with tons of kids tirelessly waving to us. We almost got hit by a stubborn cow crossing the street. We stopped at a random hill with a temple and scampered up to the top, rewarded for our efforts with the most stunning view over the insane landscape that surrounds Hampi. It was the perfect last day.

Before I sum this up, I have to give a quick shout out to Sam. All the “we” in this post is because from the minute I got off the bus until I left town I hung out with Sam. It was like Sam and I had decided to come to Hampi together; you’d think we’d known each other forever with our exploring compatibility and easy conversation. He’ll always be connected to my time in Hampi and for that I’m very grateful. There have been people along the way (who I’ve mentioned here) who have had a lasting impression on me and I hope will be in my life forever, and Sam is one of those people. And since he lives just up north in Canada, I am not even a little bit worried about seeing him again. That’s inevitable.

Hampi was my favorite place in India. It was unlike anywhere else I’d been, but also so like places in other countries that I put at the top of my highlights list. It was small, removed, and the daily activities were wander around a gorgeous landscape, watch the sun rise and fall, and chill. It was exactly what I needed after two weeks of traveling around that insane country, but more importantly, exactly where I needed to be when I reached the end of my Round the World itinerary. I wrote my blog post marking that momentous occasion from my favorite cafe in town (the site of one breakfast, two lunches, and one dinner) on the afternoon of my last day, an hour before I left to catch my train. I don’t believe I could have written anything like that anywhere else. Hampi inspired me; it affected me in a way I want to thank it for.

Go to Hampi. Like everyone told me before, I’m telling you now, you have to go to Hampi. Then you can understand why you will be the next person telling the world to go to Hampi.

Last Stop in Myanmar: Yangon

Yangon is a big city. Bottom line. At first the former capital felt like it could be anywhere, but I soon noticed its distinct Myanmarness: the produce on the street clearly grown in the surrounding farmland, the food stalls with the water (or is it oil?) bubbling in the center to cook the skewers that surround it, or the ones with a dozen different dishes to accompany rice, the telltale red stains on the streets, the gleam of a gold pagoda rising up from behind the walls of traffic, and, specific to Yangon, the lack of motorbikes. They have been banned in Yangon and I didn’t realize until I got there how strange it is to me now to just have cars fill a street. I haven’t seen a city without motorbikes in so long.

I was initially worried that two days in Yangon wouldn’t be enough, but it turned out to be plenty. I had arrived on a night bus, reaching my hotel by 6:30 am, and after waiting in the lobby for three hours and being told my bed wouldn’t be ready till after noon I had to get out and explore. I did a self-guided walking town of Central Yangon, starting by weaving through the crowded sidewalks of Chinatown overrun with produce stands on my way to Sule Pagoda.

This pagoda is in the center of traffic and surrounded by dingy little shops. I didn’t bother paying to go in, I just wanted to see it from the outside. It reminded me of Patuaxi in Vientiane but much grander. It’s a shame the base is all covered in storefronts.

I took a short break in a patch of shade in the park, with a view of the Independence Monument and City Hall, before continuing my walk up a main avenue to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. This complex has the typical tourist market things like bags, jewelry, and lacquerware boxes, but it also has sections for fabric, wood carvings, and antiques. Antiques are a big concern in Myanmar; there are warnings everywhere about not being able to bring antiques out of the country. I didn’t get anything, just wandered, killing time until I could get into my room. On my way back I stopped for some street noodles and a spring roll – a steal at 800 kyat.

After finally checking in I waited till late afternoon to go see the biggest attraction in Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda. I’d heard that if I do one thing in Yangon, this should be it, and I see why. The pagoda is not simply one structure but a whole complex of them, all ornately designed and shimmering with decoration. Unfortunately half of Shwedagon is under cover as it’s being worked on, but the top is still impressive, and even just wandering around could take hours depending on your pace. I spent three hours there, taking my time to soak in the architecture and waiting for sunset, when the lights turned on and lit up the spires against the darkening sky. As this happened the pagoda became a hive of activity: monks lit candles, people poured holy water on different statues, volunteers in an orderly line swept the ground, and all around people prayed.

While I was happy to wander alone, I had two conversations at Shwedagon that were the final note in the symphony of kind, friendly, talkative people of Myanmar. First was a girl just two years older than me. She asked to take a picture with me, then sat down next to me and we talked for a while. Beyond simply where I’m from and “only one?” (the Myanmar way of asking if I’m there alone) she asked what I thought was important for our lives. A deep question for a new acquaintance. She absorbed my response and said “thank you for your answer.” She was humbled when I told her my positive opinion of the people in her country and told me if I needed anything at all she wanted to help me. I said I was perfectly content, but thank you.

Second was a monk who, in his 70’s, is studying to become a teacher of Buddhism. After working 14 years in banking he left his profession to live the simpler life of a monk. We talked about mindfulness and how the base reaction to all things around us is like and dislike. Through betelnut-damaged teeth he explained to me the meaning of the days of the week in the Myanmar zodiac, and what the phases of my life would entail based on the day I was born. I just finished a good phase and am in a worried one until 35. Then I can marry and live in very good for 19 years. In my 50’s though I’ll have to move around a bit as a slightly bad patch comes back, but just 12 years later that’ll be over and I’m golden till the end. I was enthralled by his explanation, and he wrote it in my book so I could always have it and explain it to others. On a page now dotted with red spray.

Having done all the most popular attractions I wanted to in Yangon on the first day, my second day was relaxed. I had one task for the day: go to the National Museum. Just like mountains make me happy, when I’m a little overwhelmed in a city I’ve found that taking some time in a museum calms me. I remembered Phnom Penh and how at home I felt in the museum there; the same with Brisbane, Buenos Aires, and Rio. It’d been a while since I had been in a museum so it felt like the right thing to do.

I walked into the first gallery and was shocked at myself as I slowly observed the paintings and wood sculptures. I was emotional, overcome with happiness at where I was at that moment. I wonder if traveling has made me start to let down some of that emotional barrier I’ve always had up and actually acknowledge moments like this. Food for personal thought. Anyway, the museum started out great but as I moved up the floors it became less a museum and more an anthropological study. It didn’t help that the painting galleries were closed, but as I wandered through musical instruments, fossils, and mannequins wearing traditional tribal clothes I started to lose the initial joy I’d felt upon entering. It took just an hour and a half to make my way through all 4 open floors but for me personally, I don’t think I could have picked a better activity for my day.

On my way back I stopped for lunch at a street stall near the museum that no tourist must ever have stopped at. I walked up to the woman behind the curry stand and she looked at me with a terrified expression. She signaled for the only person who spoke English to deal with me. Through a few words I ordered chicken curry with rice and some side dishes – “all of the vegetables” – which I ate at a plastic table and chairs fit for a five-year-old. I swear I felt their sighs of relief hit my back as I left, but maybe they at least found some entertainment in my strange presence. From my side, this last chicken curry was by far the best I had in Myanmar, in the most random of places.

I treated myself to an iced coffee on the walk home and took an evening to relax. This was my final night in Myanmar; the next morning I would board a flight to Bangkok, spend another night in the BKK airport, then go to India. It may not sound like I did much in Yangon and maybe I didn’t do it all, but even just walking around was an activity there. I think I got a good feel for the city.

Yangon also confirmed something that I had a suspicion of before I even got there: cities in Southeast Asia just aren’t for me. With the exception of Chiang Mai, I can’t point to a city in the past three months that I really felt comfortable in. To me the best parts of Southeast Asia are the rural parts, the small villages, the places where the pace of life is slower and the scenery is the draw.

Mr. Steven’s Boat Trip on the Ayeyarwaddy River

My guest house had signs advertising a Sunset Boat Cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River. I’d heard some positive things about it and was curious to see a little more of the area, as well as break up some of the temple time, so I signed up to go my second afternoon in Bagan. Great decision.

Steven, a resident of Sausalito, CA for most of the year, started the Renegade River Adventures as a way for visitors to see a different part of Bagan, and in the end help it improve. We were led down to the boat by an adorable kid from Myanmar who was Steven’s right hand man; three more Bagan teenagers rounded out the crew. The trip had four stops: the first and second were alright, but it was the third stop that left a lasting impression, and the fourth was just a pleasant way to end a great afternoon.

The first stop was at a temple and cave, where the most notable thing was not the place itself but the response Steven’s visits have gotten. This place used to be littered with trash, like a lot of Myanmar unfortunately is, but since he started bringing his boat trip here (the first to do so) people have taken on the task of keeping the land clean. Now they’ve built a road to access the cave – this is when I heard Steven refer to the new tourists arriving in buses as “air-conditioned tourists,” a term I thought was quite fitting – and a few people have popped up to sell trinkets. The second stop was at a beach for swimming. They set up chairs on the sand and we chatted with beer (sold on the boat by the boys).

The third stop was at a village. Steven’s trip is the only one that visits this particular village, and he is friends with all its residents. As we approached he cut the motor and told us a little about what was about to happen: we each received a lunch box full of oranges and a laminated picture. This village only eats what it grows, and it doesn’t grow any citrus, so there is a hole in the people’s diets. Kids love the oranges and now know that we will be bringing them; we were allowed to hand them out as we saw fit but had to come back to the boat sans oranges.

The picture was a person in the village we had to find. The people who live there have no pictures, of themselves or their families, so Steven collects the pictures that tourists take, prints them out, and then asks the next visitors to bring them to the person so they have a picture of themselves, and in order for the cycle to continue we had to take pictures of people while we were there.

I was unsure what to think of this when I was handed my picture, but as soon as I got off the boat and was surrounded by kids who wanted to show me the way to my guy I was wholly on board. I had three little escorts to find Uzo, in exchange for oranges of course, and once I reached his house I realized he was ready for me. He ushered me in to sit down and promptly placed steaming hot corn on the cob in front of me. He motioned to eat. He grabbed another tourist off the street to join us – Filip- and motioned for him to eat too. He also gave us peanuts with tea leaves and poured us hot tea. We used hand signals and a few words to communicate. He showed me his old Burmese currency and I gave him a US one dollar bill, which he tucked into his shirt pocket. He gave me a Burmese cigar. He showed us through pantomime that his wife was out harvesting peanuts like the ones we were eating. His son joined us, 7 years old, in school, and asked if I would like thanakha – a paste made from tree bark that is worn all over Myanmar for healthy skin and sun protection. He took me upstairs to apply some, and they showed us their altar to Buddha. I took pictures of them together, and they asked for a picture of me with the boy. I have never had an interaction with a local family like this. I was touched.

Filip needed to find his guy so we said goodbyes and thank you’s all around. I hope whoever gets Uzo’s picture that I took has as positive an experience as I did with him. More people helped us find Phillip’s person, and after an exchange of photos we had to head back to the boat, but not before we were stopped by another man who ushered us into his home to meet his family and have more corn and peanuts and tea leaves. They already had another pair of tourists there too. A teenage girl pointed to the ring on my finger, one of the two I got at the St. Kilda market in Melbourne, so I put it on her finger. She put hers on mine, and that’s how we left it. Every time I look at my left hand I am reminded of the kind spirit of the people in this village. It was an incredible experience that I was sad to leave, but the time had come to get back on the boat. Sunset was almost here.

We ended our day on a little sand island watching the sun sink into the river, Filip and I puffing on our gifted Burmese cigars. It was beautiful (even more than over the temples) and a perfect end to the day.

The next day I stopped by the local photo shop, Linn, and copied the pictures I had taken into the folder “Steven.” I hope they bring some joy to the people I met like they brought joy to me.

Thoughts from Bagan

February 17, 2015. Sunset at Pyathada Pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar.

“Again, thousands of miles across the globe, I find myself waiting for the sun to set. Sipping a Sprite this time though, not beer. Why did I stop drinking Sprite? So refreshing.

As I was biking to my final destination temple where I knew I would spend the last moments of daylight I thought back to how many times in the past almost 8 months I have sought out a place to watch the ball of fire drop below the horizon. I remembered sitting on the wall overlooking the Caribbean in Cartagena, way back in August. I remembered hiking to the top of the hill in Copacabana to watch it set below Lake Titicaca. The time our sandboarding group had pisco sours at Lion King Rock, overlooking the otherworldly Atacama desert. There was the dock in Colonia del Sacramento, with the boats in the harbor. The time Habibi sent the sun down with a standing ovation in the Whitsundays. I watched it with the penguins at the St. Kilda Pier in Melbourne. Then from an infinity pool in Vinh Hy Bay. And with hundreds of bats in Battambang. Pascal and I raced to catch it in Khao Lak, but barely missed it and had to settle for just-after-sunset light over the Andaman Sea. My sister and I made it with happy hour drinks in Ao Nang and again in Gili Air. Utopia was the perfect setting with Simo in Luang Prabang, and Huay Tung Tao Lake outside Chiang Mai with my border crossing friends. And now here in Bagan I’m sitting on top of Pyathada Pagoda watching it set over a landscape dotted with temples, the Mekong and a mountain range serving as a backdrop.

How many times in how many places I’ve watched this natural phenomenon. The base idea may be the same, but the changing setting makes it look new every time.

I’m sure I’ll have the same experience with sunrise tomorrow – remembering Kaikoura, flying into Sydney, Lan Ha Bay, Angkor Wat, and Gili Air – even though there have been fewer sunrises than sunsets in my travels. Still, that doesn’t lessen their beauty. In fact, I tend to prefer the peacefulness of sunrises to the crowds of sunsets.

I find myself wondering if I’ll keep up this habit of watching daylight begin and end once I’m back in a daily routine. Maybe it’s better if I don’t. This is not something that should be routine. It never has been in all these places because the setting was never the same. So maybe it’s a ritual I’ll reserve for new places or certain ones that deserve it. Only time will tell. The great thing about sunrises and sunsets is that they’re not going anywhere. Wherever I end up, the sun must go down, and it must come up again. There’s something wonderfully comforting about that.”

This is Myanmar: Mandalay

I arrived in Mandalay airport and was immediately approached by taxi drivers offering their fares to get into the city through mouths full of apparently decaying red-stained teeth. I could barely focus on what they were saying, all I could think was, “What the hell is up with their teeth?!” This was my less than great first impression of Myanmar. (I would later find out that this is betelnut and most everyone chews it here, causing lots of red mouths and red spit left on streets. It’s probably my least favorite trend in this country.)

Leaving behind that welcome, I made it into the city to my extremely budget hotel at US$19 a night and immediately set out to try to see as much as possible; I would be leaving on the noon bus for Bagan the next day. On my way to find a local bus to the somewhat faraway temple I wanted to see, I made it just to the end of the street before I got sidetracked by a different temple, which ended up being a precursor for the rest of the day: large, ornate, shiny, and gold. Myanmar temples are built to impress, in scale and decoration.

I kept going and quickly learned that Mandalay is not a city meant for walking around. I guess it could be if you don’t mind walking on the street with all the bikes and cars. It’s hectic, and the main street to get to the buses is one of the busiest. I dodged people and vehicles and finally made it to the right turn only to find the other busiest street in town and no easy way to figure out what pick-up truck (aka local bus) would take me where I needed to go. So when a mototaxi dropped his price down to 1,000 kyat each way (US$1) I said screw it, why not. He ended up driving me around all afternoon to every sight I wanted to see in Mandalay for 5,000 kyat.

Just like Battambang with Sokoma, Moo ended up being more of a guide than I expected he would be. He also loved the US: “USA number 1!” He showed me pictures of his family, taught me a few words in Myanmar, and helped clear up some confusion: “This is Myanmar. I am Myanmar person. I speak Myanmar language.” Burma means nothing to Moo.

When we got to the Mahamuni Paya, Moo played tour guide as he took me through the temple and told me some of its history. Since it was a Sunday it was packed with locals praying to the giant Buddha, who was being given new gold leaf by the men (women are not allowed in the sanctuary). Weekends have become my favorite way to see places of worship; they’re being used like they’re meant to be. The complex was impressive but I preferred the next stop.

Shwe In Bin Kyaung is a quiet monastery constructed in teak wood, with beautiful carvings inside and architectural details outside. I was greeted by two friendly monks who told me a little bit about the monastery as we walked around. We drove past Mandalay Palace and its giant moat/wall fortification on our way to Kuthodaw Paya and Sandamuni Paya, an impressive array of carved marble slabs telling the Tripitaka canon in what is called the “world’s biggest book.” Each slab is housed in its own white mini-paya, which are arranged in rows around a large gold stupa, creating a stunning landscape of pointed white peaks.

The tour ended at Mandalay Hill for sunset. The barefoot 760-foot climb to the top took me past pagodas and shops. No shoes or socks are allowed on pagodas; you can imagine what my feet looked like by the time I reached the top. I joined dozens of people waiting for the supposedly beautiful view over the sprawling city. I could barely make out the buildings below underneath the haze. The sun turned into an orange ball of fire and then disappeared beneath cloud coverage, never to reappear. So much for that sunset. The way back down I chatted the entire time with a few friendly novice monks who were on the hill purely to work on their English. They were excited to meet an American – they understand our accent more easily since they hear it so frequently in movies – and we talked about their studies, literature, traveling, Myanmar.

Moo dropped me off at my hotel and I thanked him for a great day. I wandered to the night market, typically a reliable place for cheap food stalls, to discover that in Mandalay night market means some ill-lit tables of books and clothes set up alongside and in the middle of the street, with lanes for the traffic to keep driving through. I found a stall though that some locals seemed to be enjoying and had my first multi-dish Myanmar curry meal. Sadly the chicken curry was the most disappointing part – a questionable drumstick – but when combined on the rice with all the sides it was pretty tasty. There’s some weird flavor though that I am not a fan of; I have yet to figure out what vegetable it is but it turned my face into something unpleasant.

That night I reflected on my introduction to Myanmar. Mandalay is a tough city – busy, dirty, and clear poverty scattered throughout – but I was happy to have stopped there. As I rode around on the motorbike I realized that this is what people had meant when they said it was Southeast Asia before development really happened. I felt like I’d gone back in time a bit, and really crossed over into a world so unlike my own. There was something sadly fascinating about it.

This first city also showed me something that would soon be solidified in my impression of Myanmar: the people are some of the kindest, friendliest, most helpful, and genuinely wonderful people I’ve met. I’ve never had such great interaction with locals as I have in this country, and that alone makes it worth visiting.

The Majestic Jungle Sky

Every time we went out on the boat to look at the sky, one word came to mind: pure.

I’d heard at some point that the vibrant sunsets we see in the US – the reds, pinks, oranges, and purples – are actually a result of pollution. After witnessing sunset on the Amazon I believe it.

An Amazon sunset starts with the most beautiful shade of blue before morphing into pastel versions of the rainbow. It is clear, unaffected by electric lights or emitted gases. It is simultaneously peaceful and active: peaceful in the transition from hot to cool and bright sun to twilight, but active with insects and birds constantly on the move.

At night, the clarity of the sky results in a cornucopia of stars. We would go out on the boat looking for caiman and despite the excitement of following Mathias’s headlamp searching for them, I would frequently find myself just staring up at the stars and the Milky Way. I haven’t seen a sky like this since a random night drive through the middle of New Hampshire; it revived a childhood fascination with constellations.

And at sunrise, the whole process starts over again. We went out on the boat twice for sunrise: our first and last mornings. The full rainbow is on display and reflected in the calm water as the sun creeps up over the jungle.

Then within what feels like minutes it’s back to full sun, blue sky and heat.

No matter what time of day, the sky in the Amazon is memorizing. Adding to this sight is the mirror-like reflection on the water. At times it looked like there were two skies, one on each side of the shore.

Just one more reason the Amazon is majestic.