The New Paganism: Ross Douthat, Sam Harris and the Need for Ritual

 Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote about something other than the myriad scandals and absurdities forming the ballast of opinion and news writing these days. The column,  “The Return of Paganism,” reflected a thoughtful analysis of some emerging trends in the religious-spiritual practices of Americans, and whether those trends may be cohering into a new religion.

It was spurred by a new book from University of San Diego  law professor Steven D. Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars From the Tiber to the Potomac.” The thesis is that the term “paganism” may describe an emerging, post-Judeo-Christian American religion.  The idea is that divinity is of this world, not outside of it.  My mom was way ahead of these guys. When I was about 10 years old I asked her the sort of questions a 10-year-old asks about “God” and “Heaven” and was gently advised that it was up to us to find heaven ourselves in this world rather than looking to something beyond.  This occurred within a family where basic Jewish traditions and rituals were observed. My family embraced, albeit informally, the Reconstructionist approach to observance (I only realized this later), which evolved from the work of Conservative Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan in the 1930s.  (Kaplan wrote several influential books including “Judaism Without Supernaturlism,” and “Judaism As a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American Jewish Life.”)

But back to the new paganism.  Douthat takes issue with Smith’s thesis  that a new combination of intellectual pantheism and civil religion is evolving into a new paganism as “a faith unto itself.”  This is wrong, writes Douthat, because this new paganism lacks “a set of popular devotions, a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance.”  The fundamental weakness of this new paganism is that it asks people to “commune with a universe that offers suffering and misery in abundance, which means it has a strong appeal to the privileged but a much weaker appeal to people who need not only a sense of wonder from their spiritual lives” but help. This brings to mind the old adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

I think he is on to something here. I have, over the  years, sought to find a community where my own scientific worldview and deep sense of wonder at the miracle of Creation as seen in nature and in human creativity is wed with ritual,  and where acting to make the world a better place is a central value. And, I am sorry to say, I have never found a community where science and the spirit of scientific inquiry is integrated into an activist pantheistic paganism.  Rather, I have repeatedly bumped up against people who embrace superstition, have no grasp of how science, particularly epidemiology, works, and who are prone to conspiracy theories and political apathy. My experience with psychedelics, including on one occasion 5-MeO DMT under the guidance of a shaman in Mexico, have caused me to take very seriously the idea that consciousness is something inherent in the cosmos, not merely an emergent phenomenon of the neurons in our brain.  While this has strengthened my conviction that we are morally obligated to act for positive change, many others seem only to engage in more intense naval-gazing after such experiences.

Atheist neuroscientist-philosopher Sam Harris, author of “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion,” is a materialist who nonetheless sees consciousness as a conundrum that may be inexplicable within the current reductionist paradigm.  Philosopher David Chalmers posits panpsychism–that consciousness is an irreducible property of the universe–that everything has an element of consciousness.  While he has gone head-to-head with other philosophers who disagree on this point, all agree that consciousness is what makes meaning possible. (Here is Chalmers’ TED talk on this topic and an illuminating podcast with Harris and Chalmers.)

I think human beings are hard-wired for ritual, and we are hard-wired to seek a sense of connection and community.  In the past, many Americans met those needs within traditional religious observance. In the closing paragraph of his column, Douthat expresses relief that the new paganism has continued to fall short in providing a coherent set of rituals and community that can displace traditional religion. Until a new “harmonized paganism” emerges, writes Douthat, “those of us who still believe in a divine that made the universe rather than just pervading it–and who have a certain fear of what  more immanent spirits have to offer us–should be able to recognize the outlines of a possible successor to our world-picture, while taking comfort that it is not yet fully formed.”  While I can empathize with this sentiment, I do not share it.  A new, coherent spirituality that embraces science, a sense of wonder in the natural world, and a moral framework for caring for the planet and all sentient beings is much needed. Let us hope that is, indeed, emerging.

Tribalism and Climate Change

It is obvious that politics has become tribal—which makes any sign of cross-tribal collaboration cause for celebration. But a recent op-ed in  The Washington Post (“The States Can Lead the Way on Climate Change. Let’s Get to Work.”)  co-authored by Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan, and Virginia’s Democratic governor Ralph Northam offers hope that we may not, after all, be destined for mutual assured destruction via bitter partisanship.

There is no doubt that Hogan, as an old-fashioned moderate, is a species of Republican sliding towards extinction.  (Perhaps biologists should set up a captive breeding program.)   It is also true that in Maryland, where Democrats control the state legislature, effective governance requires crossing the aisle.  But Hogan has seemed to enjoy governing as a moderate—it suits his rather Falstaffian demeanor.

An acquaintance who serves in the Hogan administration told me that the Maryland governor is pondering a primary challenge to Trump—and Hogan has done nothing to discourage this thinking.  A recent  article in The New Yorker noted that Hogan was the opening speaker at a recent conference in Washington titled “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump.”

In any case, the possibility that governors and other state-level politicians are willing and able to collaborate to address climate change and other critical issues deserves recognition.

NASA Goddard image of Hurricane Katrina August 2005

Growing up I heard my grandfather say that pessimists were happier because they were never disappointed and were sometimes pleasantly surprised. It now appears, however, that even the pessimists were too optimistic about the destructive potential of climate change. (See “The Arctic is Turning from White to Blue.“)  I see no compelling scenario in which those who would rather ignore science in the interests of short-term economic growth will be convinced.  It is, therefore, encouraging to see a genuinely bipartisan expression of willingness to take the problem seriously and work collaboratively on a solution.  As a pessimist, I find the Hogan-Northam collaboration a pleasant surprise.

I am not an Entertainment Critic…. but There’s No Business Like Show Business….

Years ago I wrote for a small free weekly newspaper whose main draw was that it gave prominent coverage to local little league, junior and high school sports. There was a sports reporter—and me. I covered crime, politics…. and local theater.  I soon discovered that donning the mental hat of a “critic” made it much harder to enjoy a show.  So I will never do a full-length critique of movies or other non-news media, but from time-to-time may indulge myself with a few comments.

I recently read two critiques of two shows that I very much like. One was “Green Book” which was panned as “patronizing” by the conservative website National Review. The other was a review of the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” which was panned in The New Yorker as “treacly and exhausting.”  Perhaps I have never recovered from my years as a “critic”—but I do not sit down in front of a screen with an ulterior motive. Both  “Green Book” as a once-and-done movie, and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” as an ongoing series, caused me to willingly suspend disbelief and fall under their spells.  Oh, yeah, and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is actually a musical, and the soundtrack is… well, you decide… Here’s a link to the version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” by Mary Hopkin used in Season 2 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” And that is all I am going to say….  

Meditation and Flying Coffee Cups

Lenny is a male red-sided eclectus parrot, hatched down in Homa, Louisiana in 2000.

While I hesitate to give life advice, I can say that in general, it is always good to feed your companion animals before sitting down to meditate. I was reminded of that this morning during my usual 10-minute guided meditation when my parrot Lenny became impatient and threw my empty coffee mug to the kilim on the kitchen floor downstairs. Since I did not hear the sound of shattering, I continued to meditate.  Anyone who has spent much time living with companion animals knows that not only do they have distinct personalities, but that they display intelligence in many different ways. Lenny has learned how to open cabinet doors, turn on light switches, and on a few occasions turned on my washing machine by punching a large round button.  It is interesting how hairless apes–aka human beings–so easily compartmentalize between our companion animals and those that we eat—although there is no reason to think that the capacity for suffering is any different between a parrot and a chicken and a dog and a pig or cow.  Although mainly vegetarian, I am selectively omnivorous, and have long wrestled with finding a balance between eating well and the dictates of conscience. At the moment I am reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.”  I will write more on this topic at a future date.  At the moment Lenny is calling.

A Bit More Nonsense from the Punditry….

I am getting ready to turn in for the night, but in my online news scan caught this ridiculous headline from Daily Beast: “Beto is Old News Already: Here’s the Dems’ Best 2020 Bet.”

On the other hand, Rolling Stone had this to say: “Obama Met Beto. Then the Whispers Began.”

You decide.  Speaking of Obama…. back in January 2009, when it was 18 degrees in Washington,  I rode the MARC inauguration special and never got any closer than a jumbotron about a mile away—but you can actually read the captions on the Jumbotron:  “Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers…”

So I will leave you this evening with those warm memories from that frosty January day, and with a short video of Beto at a rally a few days before the 2018 mid-terms…

January 20, 2009… about a mile from the reviewing stand near the Capitol…..
Beto O’Rourke on November 3, 2018 speaking at a small record store in the Greenville section of Dallas.

Dreaming in Dallas

On November 7 I flew back from Dallas to Baltimore after a week knocking on doors for Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate run against Republican Ted Cruz. I was part of a group of about 40 people headquartered at a Beto pop-up office at the Marriott Courtyard at Spring Valley in Richardson—where staff  were incredibly friendly to the dozens of volunteers coming and going.  We were all dreaming that 2018 would be the year that Texas voters would show that Texas, was not a Red state—but a non-voting state that, when it finally voted, could be blue.  This mantra has basis in fact.  See: “Texas is Not a Red State–It’s a Non-voting State.”While ultimately Beto did not pull off a win, he came within 2.6 percent of Cruz, showing that things are changing in Texas.  It is no overstatement to say that in losing his Senate race, Beto drove turnout and helped many down-ballot Dems defeat supposedly entrenched Republicans in both federal and state offices.Some of the best—and worst—2018 Texas mid-term postmortems were in The Atlantic. I have selected some of those I think worth reading.  This commentary got it:  “What Beto Won“.  But David Frum, an often astute observer for the Reasonable Right, misconstrued the outcome–concluding that Beto’s loss meant he was not a viable 2020 presidential candidate. “Beto’s Loss was a Blessing in Disguise for the Democrats.” The reality is that Beto’s loss has left him free to run for President in 2020.  Perhaps the most wrong-headed commentary was by Elaina Plott, also in The Atlantic: “Beto O’Rourke’s National Celebrity was His Undoing.”

The turnout issues that were partially defied in this year’s Texas mid-terms are a study in how to legally discourage voting to keep power. A good analysis of just how difficult Texas has made voting—and how the landscape is shifting—was written by The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer on November 5—one day before the Election—captured the Zeitgeist better than anyone. “Something’s Happening in Texas.”

But back to my experience on the ground.  We canvassed daily in various suburbs around Dallas, and on Election Day, on the light rail (DART)  and elsewhere. I ultimately spent that last day walking around downtown Dallas talking to dozens of potential voters. That experience, and the many conversations I had on the doorsteps of other Texans, were encouraging in many ways. Despite the “Us vs. Them” narrative in the press, I found very little hostility—exactly ONCE did someone raise their voice and ask me to leave their property.  Considering I knocked on hundreds and hundreds of doors, and spoke with people across the political spectrum, that is remarkable.

Beto’s unusual likability and authenticity did not go unnoticed—even by some who ultimately voted for Cruz. I had quite a few conversations that went something like this:  “I’m a Republican and I’m voting for Cruz, but I admire how Beto has run this campaign.”  I also had a number of conversations that went something like this: “I’m a Republican and this will be the first time I’ve voted for a Democrat.”  I did hear stories from some Beto supporters of getting their lawn sings stolen —but they were few and far between.

If you watched the last debate between Beto and Cruz, you could see that Beto was uncomfortable “going low”—when he trotted out how the label “lying Ted” stuck because Cruz often said one thing and did another. (While factually correct, it ill-suited O’Rourke—and it seemed clear to me that rather than relying on his gut, he had taken an advisor’s advice.) That was the only time that Beto went low—and it was dissonant.  Cynics may discount Beto’s natural idealism and warmth, but it was on display after the election, where he showed grace in defeat during a chance meeting at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

During the final leg of the campaign, Beto held a rally at a small, locally-owned record shop called Good Records in the Greenville section of Dallas—and while I don’t remember everything he said, I do remember him saying that while not everything he put forth would always “poll well” it was the right thing to do.  He also spoke enthusiastically about promoting wind and solar in Texas (did you know that Texas is the clear leader in wind energy and fifth in solar?).  He also pointed to the state’s lagging behind in marijuana policy, and made a case for compassion and law in how we treat immigrants and asylum seekers.  This is one of my photographs from the rally.

Beto rally at Good Records in Dallas’s Greenville neighborhood on November 3, 2018

As I sit in my kitchen in my small Baltimore rowhouse on December 4 with my parrot Lenny looking over my shoulder, I am starting to feel that things are beginning to settle.  The metaphor that comes to mind is that of watching muddy water slowly start to clarify.  It’s a slow process—and it is easy for the water to become cloudy again—but the end result will be clarity.

Two weeks ago I would have been hesitant to predict that Beto would throw his hat in the 2020 presidential ring, but that now looks like the way things are going. And if I am going to prognosticate, I predict that among the finishers will be Sherrod Brown. Those who worry about Hillary Clinton are wasting anxiety—she will not get any meaningful support. I don’t see Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders really gaining traction, either, and doubt that Kamala Harris will be the nominee.  My pick for the biggest sleeper candidate is U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, who is by far Minnesota’s most popular elected official—-and who blew away her republican opponent by 24 percentage points—and acquitted  herself admirably in the supercharged Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings.

That Klobuchar is mulling a 2020 presidential bid is well founded. On a Saturday on the first day of December 2018, she showed up in Iowa to speak to the Iowa Farmers Union. As Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported, Klobuchar alluded to the 2020 race, commenting that “Obviously people have been talking to me about this, including down here, but I don’t have any announcements to make today.”

As we get further into the 2020 primary season (and, yes, it has already started), I will share my reflections and predictions with whomever happens to tune into this blog. I will also share various and sundry other topics that I think may be of interest to someone out there in the blogosphere.

Kyaikto and Golden Rock: Defying gravity and time

The pagoda at Golden Rock appears to defy gravity
The pagoda at Golden Rock appears to defy gravity

Sexism is alive and well at Golden Rock
Sexism is alive and well at Golden Rock

Look closely.. there are TWO golden rocks at Golden Rock (I am slathered in sunscreen--not suffering from a skin disease)
Look closely.. there are TWO golden rocks at Golden Rock (I am slathered in sunscreen–not suffering from a skin disease)

Packed like sardines at starting point for ascent to Golden Rock
Packed like sardines at starting point for ascent to Golden Rock

While tired after intermittent sleep on the overnight bus from Bago to Kyaikto and the famous Golden Rock hanging pagoda, I was relieved to arrive in daylight and check in to my hotel. I caught a ride to the hotel, the Bawga Theiddi, which has two locations–a main location in the township itself, which is a modern multi-story building, and a a set of one-level garden bungalows on the main road to the Golden Rock pagoda.

The bungalows looked beautiful from outside, and have a small dipping pool in front. But the toilet was clogged and overflowing in my room, which had clearly not been cleaned.  The second room had been partially cleaned.  Management appeared detached—perhaps the rooms in the large main hotel are better managed.  The bungalow was also far enough from town and eateries to be inconvenient, but as my stay was only for two days and one night I did not relocate.

Very early the next morning I caught a motorbike ride to the departure point in town.  As the photograph shows, visitors are packed like sardines into the back of large pickup trucks, and zip up the mountain.

An itinerant Buddhist preacher solicits alms in our truck on route to Golden Rock pagoda.
An itinerant Buddhist preacher solicits alms in our truck on route to Golden Rock pagoda.

On route to the shrine we stopped for an itinerant Buddhist preacher who stood in the truck and asked for donations to his alms bowl.  Other monks along the road also solicited donations.  Most of the visitors appeared to be Nepalese, with few Westerners.  This impression was borne out once I reached the shrine, and was particularly striking when I walked down the other side of the mountain into the hillside market stalls along the steep stone steps.

It seemed to me that despite its being high season, the locals were surprised to see a Westerner (although it may also have been that my face was coated with white sunscreen–hah!).  The booths often served as makeshift homes. While many sold somewhat tacky souvenirs, the traditional herbal and “ghost medicine” merchants were fascinating–albeit mystifying.  I took photographs as discretely as possible, but in the only incident of its kind I was angrily reproached by one one of the medicine merchants in a threatening manner. I did manage to get some photos of other medicine booths, but the one where I was reproached was by far the most diverse and fascinating in its display.

A bored youngster mans a traditional Nepalese medicine booth in the hillside village beyond the Golden Rock shrine
A bored youngster mans a traditional Nepalese medicine booth in the hillside village beyond the Golden Rock shrine

 Late Bus Back to Bago then Mandalay

Poor planning meant that I had to catch a late bus back to Bago and then a 10-hour night bus to Mandalay in order to accommodate  my itinerary. One suggestion–give yourself a few extra days in Myanmar. I was 16 days in country, and adding only two or three more days would have greatly eased my journey.

Arriving in Mandalay around 6 the following morning, I was greeted by a throng of shoving, shouting, waving taxi drivers asking if I needed a driver. I focused on the one serene face in the crowd, and ended up striking a deal with Ko Aung, who became far more than my taxi driver, but rather a guardian, advisor and friend. I grabbed my one bag (always travel with only ONE bag–see the website for details) and we zoomed off to the Yoe Yoe Lay guesthouse beyond downtown Mandalay.  I had arranged a single room beforehand, but a mixup resulted in my having to share a dorm room with five other people. They were all considerate, however, and the rooms were immaculate, had built-in night reading lights on each bunk bed, and had clean flush toilets and  hot showers about 10 steps away. The guesthouse includes breakfast and for $10/night it was a real bargain. The hostess and owner, Nan Bwe, was gracious and thoughtful–and apologetic about the room confusion. I highly recommend this guesthouse.  TO BE CONTINUED….


Bago: Home of the Snake (Pagoda)… and many more

Everybody--nuns included--zips around Bago on motorbikes.
Everybody–nuns included–zips around Bago on motorbikes

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When I rolled into Bago from Yangon a steady stream of beeping motorbikes, pedicabs and buses was kicking up dust as they zipped down the main street. Bago is not much to look at, but is home to an amazing number and diversity of pagodas including the aptly named Snake Pagoda featuring a live 15-foot Burmese python. Some of those pagodas are featured in the slideshow above.

Traffic madness in Bago
Traffic madness in Bago

Transport to Bago from downtown Yangon was fairly simple.  I had a taxi pick me up at my hotel (around 3000 kyat for the ride) and drop me at the downtown bus stop. There I caught a rickety bus to Bago–there were old transmission parts and tools stored between some of the seats. I think the bus was air-conditioned, although I don’t recall that it worked. There was an in-flight movie–something common to both high-end and and basic buses in Myanmar.

The rickety (and very cheap) bus from Yangon to Bago
The rickety (and very cheap) bus from Yangon to Bago

For my one night/one day visit I had arranged to stay at the very basic and inexpensive San Francisco hostel, steps from the bus drop. My private room cost $10/night. The bathroom–a classic Burmese squat–was located down a steep, narrow flight of stairs. But the proprietor was friendly and knowledgeable, and arranged my motorbike taxi tour and made sure that I caught the right overnight bus the next day to Golden Rock.

Bago's outdoor reclining Buddha
Bago’s outdoor reclining Buddha

One of Bago’s most striking sights is the Mya tha luang outdoor reclining Buddha. The Buddha was built in 2002 to replace a crumbling ancient Buddha.

This is one of two giant reclining Buddhas in Bago, the other being the Shwethalyaung, said to have been built in 994 A.D. and restored under British colonial rule in 1881.

A blue and pink cow trots along a dusty road as Burmese dogs walk the wall surrounding a Bago pagoda

Bago Pagoda Burnout

This drowsing dog captures my sense  Bago pagoda burnout
Bago pagoda burnout–the dog says it all

Pagoda burnout is common to first-time visitors to Myanmar. Jet lagged, sleep-deprived and choking on dust, I reached terminal burnout in Bago after a day spent speeding around on the back of a motorbike until one pagoda blurred into another. If I had some advice about seeing Bago, it would be to avoid the one-day whirlwind, and stay for an extra day or half-day.  I was pressed for time with only 16 days in country, so that  made no sense for me.

At the end of a long, dusty day I packed and got on board the all-night bus to my next destination, Kyaikto’s gravity defying Golden Rock pagoda. Click Golden Rock to link to next narrative.


Vibrant, Dirty & Disparate Yangon

A sinewy monk in saffron leans over a table with booksellers at Yangon's bustling Bogyoke market.
A sinewy monk in saffron with booksellers across from Yangon’s Bogyoke market.

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When I arrived in Yangon it was late, but I wandered around as dusk fell, exploring back alleys and finally venturing across suicidally busy Pyay Road to Inya Lake (not to be confused with Inle Lake). Disoriented from jet lag and sleep deprivation following my 46-hour trip from Baltimore I wandered around lost–constantly thinking I recognized a particular stray dog which I had seen in an alley on my way to Inya Lake. (It didn’t take me long to realize that somewhere back in the gene pool was a dominant stray dog that has given rise to a line of Burmese street dogs that all look alike). Finally, I asked a teenaged kid for help and he walked me back to my bed and breakfast, Myanmar Bike World.

That act of kindness in helping a stranger find his hotel at night came to characterize the kindness of the Burmese people. This was repeated over the next few days, as my taxi driver took me into town to buy a plane ticket and refused to charge me for waiting at the airline office.

I spent two days in Yangon, and this, written after the fact, is an impressionistic account of my experiences and perceptions.

As elsewhere in any medium-to-large urban area in Myanmar, rush-hour traffic in Yangon is often frenetic, but the appearance of chaos is deceiving, as Burmese–unlike many Americans–know how to drive in dense urban traffic and use skill and focus rather than aggression to negotiate the road.  However, one characteristic that differentiates Yangon traffic from that in Mandalay, Bago and other cities is that motorbikes are banned in Yangon for reasons unclear (See “Ban on motorbikes lingers”).

In Washington, Los Angeles or New York a blown horn is a sign of anger or impatience, while in Myanmar the horn is used ONLY for one purpose–to alert other drivers and pedestrians to your location. This is necessary because of the volume and velocity of both vehicular and human traffic. I will talk more about the paradox of traffic madness with harmony in other posts.  Getting used to the need to beep almost caught up with me in Bagan, where I rented an electric bicycle.  I overcame my conditioned aversion to beeping after nearly hitting a little kid running blindly up a dirt alley.

Building cranes loom over crumbling high rise buildings and rush hour traffic in downtown Yangon

Yangon is a city that exemplifies the changes rippling through Myanmar since the opening of diplomatic relations and tourism a few years ago.  Busy traffic, crowded sidewalks, and  dilapidated apartment buildings with clothes hanging outside coexist with building cranes looming from the few vacant lots in downtown Yangon. Yangon was the only place I saw people other than monks or nuns begging, and there is an area along the major thoroughfare into the city lined with homeless people living in makeshift shelters where they hang clothing on fences and cook with small stoves or campfires.

Open ditches full of trash, garbage and other waste line the main road. Trash—particularly plastic—is a huge problem everywhere in Myanmar, and there appears to be little coordinated effort at trash collection and cleanup.

Crumbling buildings and an aging electrical grid characterize much of downtown Yangon

Nuns in pink bearing alms bowls march through downtown Yangon

In the Bogyoke market and surrounding streets, modern malls coexist with myriad street vendors hawking everything from fruits, herbs and prepared food to books and T-shirts.  On one block there are a line of opticians, and this is where I ventured into Pwint Thiri Optic at 373 Upper Shwe Bontha Street to get a new pair of prescription bifocals made on the spot.  After a brief eye test, the optician showed me a choice of frames. I selected a titanium flex frame and the optician told me to get lunch and come back in one hour.  I returned as directed and picked up my new glasses for a total of $31. Note: I eventually found my misplaced prescription glasses and noted that the lenses were a bit sharper than those from the Burmese optician. But for $31 the Burmese glasses did the job–and with better quality frames than my nearly $200 pair from my hometown of Baltimore.

Booksellers along Bogyoke Aung San Road in Yangon

Yours truly in longyi at my Yangon hotel, Bike World Bed & Breakfast

Just before entering the optician I had purchased a longyi, the omnipresent garment of choice for the majority of Burmese men and women.  This garment is a long, wrap around, one-piece, ankle length dress–and is readily visible in my photo gallery here.  I never quite mastered the art of tying the longyi, and always felt on the verge of becoming semi-naked in public at any moment. But with a little help from the optician, I tied the longyi and wore it all day in Yangon.

Shwedagon: The Disneyland of Pagodas

Shwedagon pagoda at night
Shwedagon pagoda at night

Yangon’s fabulous Shwedagon pagoda is among the most annoyingly touristy scenes in Myanmar (second, perhaps, to Bagan’s Shewsandaw “sunset pagoda”).  Its splendor notwithstanding, it is the Disneyland of pagodas.  Continue reading “Vibrant, Dirty & Disparate Yangon”

Introduction: Burmese Daze…. (with apologies to George Orwell)

NOTE TO READERS: My background is reporting and journalism, and my natural propensity is to think in terms of a book-form narrative when writing, after the fact, about a 16-day trip to Myanmar. Blogs, of course, are designed to place the latest post at the beginning. After considering the alternatives, I decided to simply make the introduction a sticky post (always at the top) and have subsequent posts fall by default in the order posted–but with a red link providing the reader with the ability to click to posts in chronological narrative order if desired.  (Technical note: All photographs can be clicked to enlarge.)

When I left Baltimore for Burma on January 11, 2014 I had never been anywhere in Asia but wanted to go to Myanmar while the culture was still intact and change was underway.  Tourism has opened up in Burma only in the last 3 years, and although I found some major tourist attractions were crowded, in many places one rarely saw Westerners.

So many iconic images of Burma crowd my mind. I took hundreds of photographs and will share a few here.  Regarding my blog title, the combination of the time difference (11.5 hours), sleep deprivation, all night buses, adrenaline and two bouts of dysentery definitely kept me often feeling dazed–but usually not in a bad way. About the only time it bothered me was when I  made the mistake of trying to navigate on my own. I have an innately poor sense of direction and the above combination combined with novelty of place led, on two occasions, to my wandering around and getting nowhere.

While Burma is the land of pagodas and stupas, among the first pictures I am posting here captures something else charming and wonderful about this place.  It is a photograph of a man on a motorbike leading his horse across a bridge over a tributary of the Ayerwaddy–I think it is the Chinwin–can anyone out there read the sign?

The photograph captures the way modernity and antiquity coexist side-by-side in Myanmar. On many occasions I saw farmers plowing rice fields with water buffalo while 100 feet away someone else was using a gasoline-powered rototiller.

Some aspects of life there are a time warp.  I took a nearly 17-hour ferry from Mandalay to Bagan, and the pilot checked the depth of the Ayerwaddy River by using a long, red and white striped sounding pole and a flashlight!  Keep in mind that SONAR was developed in the 1930s… somehow it has not yet been adopted in Myanmar.

My friend and trusted motorbike taxi driver Ko Aung on bridge near Sagaing outside Mandalay
My friend and trusted motorbike taxi driver Ko Aung on bridge near Sagaing outside Mandalay

The gentleman leaning against the sign is my motorbike taxi driver, Ko Aung, who treated me like a member of his family and made he feel that I had a real friend, not just a driver. The photograph below of the man leading the horse was made possible because Ko, at my request, caught up to the motorbike, giving me time to snap the picture. As anyone who travels knows, many of the best photographic moments elude capture, but in this case–thanks to Ko and a little luck–I got the photograph and captured a bit of the spontaneous essence of Burma.

A man leading his horse across a bridge near Sagaing outside Mandalay.

Getting to Yangon

Departing Tokyo for Yangon January 13 2014

Getting to Yangon–formerly Rangoon and still RGN in airport code–took 46 hours in transit with an overnight in the Tokyo suburb of Narita. There I caught a free shuttle to my hotel, where I stayed in a tiny but clean and quiet room that cost $46 for the night. I was tapped out and chose simply to relax and not use my limited time to look around the city.

Over Myanmar on route to Yangon January 13 2014

Because you cross the International Date Line, you lose a calendar day in transit above and beyond the actual transit time. Hence I departed on February 11, stayed overnight in Narita, and arrived shortly after 5 p.m. at Yangon International Airport on February 13, 2014.

Arriving at Yangon International Airport January 13 2014
Arriving at Yangon International Airport January 13 2014

There I was accosted by taxi drivers wanting to charge me $20 for the ride from downtown Yangon to my hotel, Myanmar Bike World Bed & Breakfast. I walked away at which point the driver who was asking for $20 asked me “what do you want to pay?” We settled on $10 and were on our way.

Even the initial trip to the hotel was a continual assault of odors and images for a Westerner who had never been to any Asian city.

I arrived at my hotel, Myanmar Bikeworld Bed & Breakfast after a turn up a side street past two embassies and arrived at a dead-end gate entry into the bed and breakfast.

After settling in, I took a walk across insanely busy Pyay Road to Inya Lake just a few blocks away.  It was getting dark when I headed back, winding my way up the alleyways, and I was jet-lagged and—with my notoriously poor sense of direction–wandered around feeling lost.

In what became a typical Burmese act of kindness, a teenaged boy finally led me back to my hotel.  Myanmar is a country characterized by the kindness and decency of its people and–not insignificantly–by their honesty and integrity.  Almost anywhere else I would have felt unsafe wandering up dark alleys and streets in a strange city, but not in Myanmar.

The next day I headed for the famous Bogyoke Market in downtown Yangon.  Click Yangon to link to next narrative.