I feel so extraordinarily lucky. At age 42, married to a busy man, raising two busy teenage girls, immersed in a time of my life when I could so easily slide into a myopic world of dance competitions, student-teacher conferences and what’s-for-dinner squabbles, I got to slide out, just for a few weeks, to expand my world view and my consciousness by traveling to Southeast Asia on a spiritual immersion trip of a lifetime — a pilgrimage, to name it more aptly.
But as a friend reminded me, this trip didn’t just show up like a wrapped gift on my doorstep, and it wasn’t really a product of luck. I made this happen. I created it. I formed it from nothing but my own imaginings while listening to the subtle urgings of my Soul. That small, inner, ever-so-quiet nudge that, I now suspect, has been craving a trip like this for a number of years, perhaps lifetimes. But the larger pressure to stay busy, reach for success, and “make something of myself” consistently overpowered and outvoted my Soul on this particular agenda item.
Until finally a small crack appeared, widened, and my Soul voice came through and shone this trip like a beacon from my inner eye. I couldn’t see any possibility of my life sailing around it. And I didn’t want to. I wanted to answer its call. I could no longer deny that this trip was, for reasons not entirely known to me, something I must do. Trust first, understand later. Leap first, look afterwards. I knew, from my past experience with Soul Calls, that my Soul wouldn’t be so unrelenting unless this trip was to be a crucial catalyst for my growth as a human being. As a spiritual being. As a spiritual, human being.
Eight months in advance, I turned my energy and focus towards customizing an individual, guided tour of Myanmar through six cities (Yangon, Bagan, Pokkoka, Monwya, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Ngapali Beach). I spent hours sifting through tours and tour companies online, reading up on the various city highlights, the TripAdvisor reviews for hotels, restaurants, and, of course, the top attractions.
I followed my instincts and settled on a travel agency based in Yangon, Myanmar and proceeded to plan the trip via email exchanges with a woman who I have never met and likely never will. Every now and then during the planning stages, I imagined some scheming person on the other end of the emails, siting in a comfortable apartment in New York City, reeling me in and laughing at my naiveté. At two different times, I sent money via wire transfer to a bank located in Hong Kong, crossing my fingers that it would get into the right hands. I checked, double-checked, and triple-checked the validity of the company (Discovery DMC), but eventually I told myself I just needed to trust. So I trusted. It was a choice. It would be the first, but not even close to the only time I needed to choose trust throughout my trip.
Through Discovery, I organized my flights (in addition to my international flight, I took five domestic flights), selected my hotels and planned my day excursions. During which time not a day would go by without thinking of the trip or checking off one or another of the many preparations required for a half-way-around-the-world trip. I talked with my 12 and 14-year-old daughters about the trip and, to the best of my ability, emoted confidence and certainty that of course, all would be well and I will be home, safe and sound. But deep inside, I wasn’t always so sure.
During the eight months of planning, I rode roller coasters of fear/excitement/paranoia/trepidation/disbelief. I wondered about my safety. I thought about the possibility of freak accidents while alone in a third-world country. I dreamt of being lost, betrayed, forgotten, scared, taken advantage of, robbed, or worse. And yet I continued to move one day closer to the tearful moment I would say good-byes to my family and find myself at the beginning of a 24-hour journey to the other side of the world. Then, I would get off the plane, find my luggage, and hopefully see a sign with my name written on it — just as I had arranged. Once that happened, I told myself, I would relax and settle in. But just in case, I also planned what I would do if there was no one there to pick me up and the tour company had been a scam, and me, its latest victim (it involved buying a plane ticket straight home!).
Eventually, it was time to begin sharing the details of my trip with more people who would be affected by my absence. They would inevitably and understandably ask “Why?” or “Is it for business?” or “By yourself?” and more. But my Soul, not having fully briefed me on the why, left me to piece together a few reasonably sounding ones: “It’s a cultural trip,” “I love to travel,” It’s a ancient spiritual place,” “I want to study Buddhism up-close and personal,” “It’s like a culmination of all my years of spiritual study.”
The responses to my answers viscerally affected me: when I received support and positivity, I instantly felt empowered, encouraged and fully capable of traveling safely by myself. But when I received confusion, head-shaking, negativity or doubt, I felt nervous and unsure about my decision. It reminded me of how easily and often unconsciously we affect and influence each other. After receiving negative/confused reactions, I would need to remind myself to listen and trust myself, my soul, and this journey.
But while the greater question of “Why” was difficult for me to answer succinctly, there were other questions that were easier to answer. For example, why did I choose Myanmar (formerly known as Burma)? Why not Thailand, or Malaysia, or Vietnam? There are several pieces to that answer. First, Myanmar has only very recently (2011) lifted a boycott on tourism due to the human rights issues that have plagued this country for decades (the politics of which are worth reading up on.) In fact, President Obama recently visited the country in hopes of continuing their movement towards democracy as well as discussion around the treatment of Muslim minorities by a small faction of Buddhist extremists — I will be writing more on this. It has also faced embargo, military rule and English rule and has existed largely in isolation until only the last decade or so.
Therefore, the window of time is opening to visit Myanmar and experience it as it currently is — raw, rough, excited, welcoming, receptive — an entire country walking into the light after years of darkness. While this meant that the infrastructure for tourists would be rough (very little English signage on the roads, only very basic English spoken in the hotels, very little information available in English at even the most visited sites, etc.), it also guaranteed that I would still see the locals making, selling and wearing their traditional clothing, primarily the longyi, even while Western clothing beckoned quietly from a few billboards in Yangon and, to the head-shaking of the traditional folks, some (spotty, and only in the bigger cities) of the younger generation could be seen sporting jeans.
If I went now, it was guaranteed I would see the fishermen who row with one leg on Inle Lake (see picture below), gracefully perched at the tip of their boats, while they cast a wide net into a lake decorated with water-hyacinth, lotus and floating (really!) islands. In the early mornings, I’d see these same fishermen gathering seaweed from the lake to sell as fertilizer to the local gardeners.
I would see the local women wearing their traditional make-up, thanaka, which they grind themselves from the innards of the thanaka tree and apply faithfully each morning after brushing their teeth and washing their face. Thanaka, it is believed, helps protect against the sun, aging, acne, and a host of other skin problems, in addition to it being considered quite beautiful. All the women, girls, and many of the young boys wear it (but as boys get older and want to appear “tough,” they often eschew the thanaka to face the sun “bare-faced.”)
I would see craft shops that allow a window into skill-sets that have long given way to machines in our western cultures — silk and lotus weaving shops, gold-leaf shops, Buddha carving shops, jade markets and more.
And I would experience a culture that doesn’t merely talk about living close to the land, but is a true heartbeat of the land. For all my Ayurvedic study, work and promotion of living close to the Earth and her cycles, the Myanmar people need no education or reminders of what it means to live with and in the Earth and what She provides!
Yes, the motorcar and motorcycle are ubiquitous (for those who can afford the very expensive gasoline), and even the cell phone is seen in the larger cities, but bicycle, horse and buggy and oxcart are still widely used methods of transportation as well. And small, untouched cities (my favorite was Ava) quietly whisper invitations to come, feel their unique power and knowledge, sit down and listen to their stories. This sacred window is open…but it will likely close soon as the country becomes more and more trodden.
Seize the moment, I said to myself.
Another answer to the question “Why Myanmar?” is precisely because of its Buddhist history and culture. I’ve been fascinated with Buddhism since I first started studying spirituality in depth about 15 years ago, and have long admired its “think, feel, experience and discover for yourself what is Truth” approach to spirituality as well as the “Let’s not argue about God and focus on living this life well” philosophy. I’ve always been attracted the teachings of the Buddha — the fierce commitment to compassion, loving-kindness (metta), non-violence and the belief that we can each be free from the cycles of suffering. If the Buddha can do it, so can we. He too was “only a human being.”
But of course, all I’ve ever learned of Buddhism has been on American soil, which translates to some amount of Americanization, intentionally or not. [For example, many in America understand Buddhism’s first Noble Truth stating that all life is Dukkha, or “suffering,” as a pessimistic way to approach life. However, Buddhists would say their outlook is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, it is simply realistic. And only from that place of being realistic can we make changes and seek to free ourselves from our suffering. The Buddha’s teachings then set out to share with us just how to do so.]
So for me to get a taste, or hopefully, a full course dinner, of Buddhism in a country that has never known or been exposed to much else (90% of the population is Buddhist) seemed like a spiritual quest that was ripe for the taking. And I wanted to sink into it completely.
A final factor in my decision to choose Myanmar was the level of safety for a woman traveling alone within the country. Everything I read ahead of time said it was a perfectly safe country for women. Even though women are not exactly “equal” (women are barred entry from some of the innermost/uppermost sections of the religious pagodas and temples, nuns do not have the same space accommodations/privileges as monks, etc.), this doesn’t equate, at least in my experience, to lack of safety.
In fact, I found that I was treated especially well. Teenage boys held my hand or elbow to help me cross streets (I wasn’t quite ready to try the “Frogger-style approach” that the locals are quite comfortable with), my driver held an umbrella for me while I stood in the rain to give food to the monks, and local men and women aided me across perilous wooden beams to get to or from my boat.
At the same time I will admit that many locals did find my solo traveling “odd” and expressed curiosity (I was asked often, via my guide, where my husband was). My one and only female guide explained to me that local women would not consider traveling alone due to the possibility of “creating negative karma” when on her own without guidance. But my aloneness was never something that put me in danger. Rather, the locals understand and accept that foreigners do things differently. So outside of asking us to please cover shoulders, don’t wear short shorts or shoes in their homes and religious places, they don’t hold us to their standards.
Speaking of traveling alone, that was the other question I could answer. “Why was I going alone?” “Aren’t their tours I could join? Retreats I could sign up for? A friend to go with?”
First, I felt strongly that going alone was the only way to experience the country the way I hoped to: up-close and personal — an immersion straight into the heart and soul of the culture and the people. Yes, I wanted to see the pagodas, temples and monasteries, I wanted to walk through the reconstruction of Mandalay Palace and take in the thousands of pagodas scattered everywhere in Old Bagan, walk the famous UBein Bridge, lay flowers at the famous reclining Buddha. I wanted to climb the 800 steps of Mount Popa, walk along the beaches, visit the local colorful, busting markets, all the things that tour groups would also do and see.
But above all of that, I wanted to focus on and interact with the local people. I wanted to wrap myself up in it, live it, breathe it, get inside it. I hoped to be invited in for tea. Out to dinner. I wanted to hold their babies, connect with the mothers and fathers, look in the eyes of grandmas and tell them I admire them. I wanted to sit for lunch with the monks. I wanted to visit and bring gifts to schoolchildren, walk quietly around a local village, experience being the only white-faced, English-speaking person in the room/boat/temple. Call me crazy, but I find this to be a fascinating experience in humility and letting go.
Ultimately, I wanted the flexibility to adapt my own itinerary — call it quits when I was tired, spend a little more time in this or that place, eat when I was hungry (and try eating where and what the locals eat) and most importantly, rearrange my schedule as each day arrived and my body, mind and energy level requested. Besides, I don’t know anyone who would have enjoyed my particular taste in travel which is a “roughing it” style when it comes to immersion in the culture, but a “five-star” style when it’s time for a hot shower, warm bed and a good breakfast.
Some might argue that being alone, and perhaps also being a woman, made me quite vulnerable, and while that may be true, I viewed this as making me approachable.
And I was. Throughout my trip, I was regularly approached, always with kindness and respect, laughter and smiles for photos, questions, and tentative “Hello’s” and “Where are you from’s?” asked by the occasional local who knew a bit of English. I would reply with my tentative “Mingalabar!” and “Ney Koun La?” (‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’) in Burmese and was always rewarded with gentle laughter and giant white-toothed smiles (or red-toothed smiles if the person chewed the Betel nut, an unfortunate local habit that can lead to mouth cancer) at hearing an American speak their language. I loved providing this bit of pleasure for them. Mothers encouraged their children to take their picture with me, grandmothers passing me squeezed my hand, villagers I visited with offered me gifts of fruit, snacks and tea. They asked me often how I liked their country, and when I told them how beautiful I thought it was, how kind everyone was, they beamed with pride. While I cannot say for certain and can only speak of my experience, I believe that it was indeed my vulnerability and approachability which opened the door for the richer inner experiences I had.
Now, several weeks home from my trip, I still don’t know the whole picture of “why”. But bit by bit as I walked through my trip and now, through reflecting and writing, reasons continue to unfold. Wise insights, beautiful gifts, profound sharing, a greater understanding of myself in the bigger picture of the world are emerging from this opportunity that I said “yes” to. Much of this I will explore throughout this blog series. But truly, I believe this trip is a treasure I’ve given to myself that will likely continue to give for years to come.