Monday, 27 May 2013

Old world meets new world - the things we take for granted

I was puzzled by my guides in Myanmar. Sometimes they spoke good English and yet at other times it was totally baffling and I couldn't understand a thing. That was until it was explained to me that they learn to read English but not to speak it. So although my wonderful young guide Ye min at Inle Lake read 600 page English novels voraciously as we swooshed along on the lake (also singing lovely English songs - were they love songs to me?!) his pronunciation of English sometimes left me scratching my head. I'll give you a simple example (although it's hard to explain):

"Here is the eer mumble mumble th" Ye min said.
After many repeats and head scratching from me I asked him to show me what he meant. 
"Ah ha" I said "earth. Now you say earth". 
Ye min replied "eer mumble mumble th". (see why it's hard to explain!). 
Well this went on for 24 hours with him practicing like mad to say earth!! 
Eventually I asked him to say "birth" He replied perfectly "birth". Now say "irth" I said. 
He replied perfectly "Irth - but it is spelt". (yes it is!) "Oh English is so hard".
Secondhand books, books and more books
Walking through the streets of Yangon I saw many second hand bookstores selling very old English (and other language) novels, school books, magazines and old newspapers etc. It seems that there is a voracious appetite for reading and learning. And then I saw school books being made by hand right on the street. No printing presses or the like. Just a simple collation of (poor) photocopies, hand stitched and bound. 
On the street book making
Sewing and binding the pages
And so to another conundrum!
My guide couldn't understand why I would need a credit card. Travellers are warned that Visa and Mastercard are accepted in very few hotels and shops and there are no ATM's in Myanmar.  Only local currency (kyats) and crisp new US dollars are acceptable. That means one needs to lug small denominations of US$ for all purchases, tips etc. It felt both unsafe and inconvenient. 

My camera needed replacing (certainly not budgeted for in the cash I was carrying!). I hadn't seen the point of taking my smart phone as one can't make international calls to and from Myanmar. But it would have been a great back-up camera! C'est la vie! Ye min generously offered to lend me the money until the next day! How kind but I was stuck of course as I couldn't repay him the next day!! And then his face lit up! (as it often did!) "We have a new ATM in my town and we'll be there tomorrow. We can go there and you can get your money". Imagine my combined relief and trepidation! And so we went on an adventure with my heart in my mouth. Would the card be gobbled up never to be seen again! Ye min and I both entered the sparkling new 3-sides-of-glass stand-alone ATM (no privacy here!).  Surprisingly all went smoothly (with Ye min watching my every move - including my pin number!) and then before you could say 'Jack Robinson' out popped the money with that all familiar burring noise (local currency of course less a large 'commission'). I will never forget Ye min's eyes! They were as large as saucers:
Where was the teller? 
How could that happen? 
How could 'it' count the money that fast (and deduct a fee at the same time!)? 
(rather like a child thinking the newsreader sat behind the TV - way back in the late 50's!) 
"I want one of those credit cards" he said

And then we discussed my Kindle. "Inside this Kindle I have 55 books". 
Eyes wide again - as he turned it over to see where they were!
"I want one of those" he said
"But until you have a credit card you can't buy the books" I replied.
What a catch-22.
And then I explained that by the time I had finished ordering a book on the Kindle it was already downloaded  and my credit card debited from America. It was almost too much.
The eternally happy, learned and helpful Ye min. A great guide (don't look at the food - Western-style with appauling Burma belly results)
And yet he had a smarter smart phone than I did. But only to make local calls. Still I hope it won't take long till they catch up - and probably pass us! But in the meantime it's a great reminder of how easy life is when you have a credit card (too easy sometimes!) and that all the world is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year! 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Turner from the Tate - Downunder!

It's almost as though paintings need to 'earn their keep' these days. They seem to be moved around the world at will - in great secrecy for security reasons - and at great cost! But what opportunities we have when a 'shipment' comes to town. Suddenly the world seems a little smaller and a lot more exciting!
Peace - Burial at Sea - 1842
I popped over to my home town Adelaide recently for a 30th birthday celebration (being more than twice that age I hasten to add, it was sadly not mine!) And the bonus addition to the trip - other than seeing special friends - was a visit to the charming Art Gallery of South Australia which was hosting (is that the word) a marvellous collection of 100 works of art from the Tate Collection of J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851), one of Britain's greatest artists. Some of the works have never been previously exhibited.
A disaster at sea
The exhibition closed in Adelaide on 19 May but in true 'earning their keep' it is now on its way to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (1 June - 8 September). A timely weekend in Adelaide gave me an opportunity too good to miss. We headed in for a quick overview of the exhibition, before having lunch at the trendy Gallery Cafe and then returning to the exhibition for an indepth look with a Gallery Guide. We didn't miss a thing! His sketchbooks, paints and notes gave it an intimate air.

Venice - The Bridge of Sighs - 1840
I always remember my favourite 'Aunt', who hailed from England, talking about Turner and his skies.  I used to spend time with 'him' in the late 60's (that dates me) at the Tate so it was almost like visiting a friend - albeit with many paintings I hadn't seen before - in Adelaide. His oils were wonderful but it was his watercolours which 'blew me away' this time. They seem to have such spontaneity and a lightness of touch. They were achingly beautiful.
Venice, Moonrise - 1840
Scarborough town and castle: morning: boys catching crabs - 1810

Recently I received a blog on John Singer Sargent watercolours at the Brooklyn Museum . Sargent (1856 – 1925) was an American artist, considered by many to be the leading portrait painter of his generation. The exhibition closes 28 July or you can visit the exhibition in Boston in October. It seems I'm drawn to watercolours in ways that surprise. They have the gentle touch.
Sargent - Venice
If I was to compare the two then Turner wins by a short half head! Well probably a furlong! Do you agree? Whatever you do try to get to Turner in Canberra later in the year. And of course if you're in the States why not visit either Brooklyn or Boston. Aren't we lucky.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Roses are red....

I was fortunate to grow up in a home with a large and wonderful garden - much of it comprising my parents beloved rose gardens. I guess I took both the garden and the roses a little for granted - as you do when growing up - when it just seems to be the 'way it is'. Our home was always filled with large vases of beautifully arranged roses and towards the end of 'rose season' I remember my father raising his eyebrows (bushy) every time my mother said "This is the last of the roses". Somehow we knew that she would always manage to find the odd one or more in the garden for months until rose pruning time. Then it really was 'the last of the roses' for a while.

Spending a weekend recently in the country I was delighted to walk in my friends garden. The roses were blooming, the smells were delicious. It brought back so many memories. I couldn't wait to clip a few stems to bring home to enjoy and reminisce. 
More beautiful

Home grown roses are so much more enjoyable than a bunch purchased from the florist. Firstly they smell! Secondly they aren't tight buds. They have a softness to them that one never seems to get when buying.
In the bucket ready to travel home

What a delight it has been to have them in the house. It's reminded me of the past and how much I should have appreciated 'the last of the roses'.
Soft soft soft
There's something about roses that brings out the romantic in me. Do they do the same for you?

Nature at her best
And who wouldn't want to wake up to this by the bed in the morning - uplifting. Such a great start to the day.
Good morning to you!
 I think I can feel some rose planting coming on!

Monday, 13 May 2013

The stunning Inle Lake

It was the river I had gone to see but it was the lake which captured my heart. 22 kilometres long and half as wide it was a feast for the eyes. The Intha people (lake people) inhabit around 20 villages and there are more than a hundred Buddhist monasteries located around the lake. 
Stilt houses on Inle Lake
Travelling in my own private long boat with just the guide and driver was a privilege. We weaved in and out of the 'roads' at will as we wooshed along the waterways. The 'islands' are in fact floating and are held down with bamboo. So the 'roads' can change and the waterways can get clogged with water hyacinth. There was so much life happening on the lake and in the waterways. At every turn there was a surprise. But a picture can better tell a thousand words - so here we go!
The floating island market gardens held in place with bamboo sticks

Soaping up - and rinsing off - no qualms about the passing crowd!
Overseeing water buffalo enjoying a slosh around in the mud

Scraping past narrow bridges with the mountains in the distance
Sliding past other long boats into the heart of a village
Puttering past daily village life
Or speeding past the odd temple or two or three or ....even more!

The odd shrine (rather like a lighthouse marker on the main 'highway')
Or see a fisherman preparing his net
Or see the unique leg rowers position their boat
There was so much to see on the Lake that I haven't even touched the surface of the wonderful crafts that the locals create. It's time for a break from Myanmar - but I will return for more at some stage....!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Bagan - the city of 2000 +++ temples

One of the highlights of a stop in the World Heritage listed city of Bagan is to see the 'sea' of temples at sunset. Sadly due to a late flight into Bagan I missed it! I must say that I can't believe that the scheduling by the airline/travel company could be so BAD! The problem with flights in Myanmar is that the final internal 'arrangements' are only received on arrival into the country. You are 'in their hands'. So I was 'Not Happy Jan'!
In the late morning light - just imagine how much better at either sunrise or sunset!
Still I consoled myself in the knowledge that I would be taking a balloon flight over the temples in the very very early morning. After a 4.00 am wake-up call (aaagh!) this was then followed up 15 minutes later with another call to say that all balloon flights had been cancelled. There went another - and really - my final opportunity. The chance of a return to see them again is SLIM. Oh the joys of travel! Perhaps the best way to describe what I had missed is to quote from the booklet handed to me on arrival in Myanmar. "Bagan cannot fail to move you. Ask any visitor who has witnessed the sunrise or sunset across these fields of glowing temples." Well don't ask me!
Just one of a thousand clusters
It's sad to see so many of them collapsing, crumbling, disappearing with age and lack of care. But then one must remember that they were built in the 10th-12th Centuries! After a quick 'drive by' and a pleading request to stop so I could at least take some photos of all that I had missed, we spent the morning visiting the golden Shwezigon Pagoda - the most famous pagoda in this World Heritage city. It was  built in 1044-1077.
Shwezigon Pagoda - gold, gold, gold - not bad huh!

Some of the beautiful details
What I love about Pagoda's is not just their beauty but also the life that is happening in the forecourts. It's always busy, with people carrying offerings, listening to a monk 'lecture', having a picnic, being reverent - whatever age (from tiny tots to grandparents and everything in between). There is a sense of peace and calm - no jostling even when crowded. There is great respect. 
A monk addressing his followers
Who thank him by giving alms
The nearby Ananda Temple built in the early 11th Century sits in the arid plains. The architect created a white 'snow cave' containing 4 giant buddhas - 9 metres high facing each of the 4 points of the compass. After completing the design he was executed so he couldn't repeat his design! So much for religion!
Approaching the Ananda Temple (though the 'shopping mall'!)
One of the 4 x 9 metre high buddhas (I'd be smiling too dressed in that much gold!)
There's more to come - so until next time.....

Monday, 6 May 2013

Cruising the Ayeyarwady

Myanmar (Burma), Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy), Mandalay, Bagan, Yangon (Rangoon) - the list of exotic names goes on and on. And after years of dreaming suddenly I was on board the 'Road to Mandalay' (take a look here) to bathe in the luxury of a cruise along this famous river. I boarded in Bagan - very late one evening - oh the joys of 'irregular' airline scheduling - Myanmar 'time'. One of the great things about this boat is that there are 4 single cabins (with NO SINGLE SUPPLEMENT). Yes my cabin was small (my friend who had cruised late last year described it as the size of a cupboard - not my choice of words) but it had everything that I could wish for including a comfy bed! And there's nothing quite like a touch of Bvlgari shampoo and body lotion or French Champagne awaiting in the ice bucket to have an immediate impact on a weary traveller. 
River life outside the cabin window (complete with bugs on it - outside!)
I had been warned that the River was low meaning we could not cruise as far as Mandalay. Still it had been my choice to come in March so although disappointing - nature as always - had the last say. The cruise was interesting but I had expected to see more of 'life on the waters-edge' and pagodas and stupas lining the shores. 
Hung out to dry - the laundromat
After all when cruising the Nile there is much activity both on and off the water and magnificent temples to be seen. 
A rare sight - a temple in the distance
The combination of the low water level of the river and the fact that it is prone to flooding means that temporary sites are set up as needs be (rather like a day-at-the-beach).
A temporary 'village' on the river flats
For those who didn't want to just 'loll about' on the upper deck and watch the world go by, or roast their bodies (all shapes and sizes) beside the swimming pool, or drink the local gin, beer or French Champagne, we had the opportunity to learn to cook while cruising along. Well put it this way - we watched our Chef prepare and tasted the results. Myanmar salad and a prawn curry (might try this at home one year!) - both delicious.
Chilli, fish sauce, garlic, garlic and more garlic!
And then of course each night after a choice from the European or Myanmar menu, we could attend a lecture, watch locals making silver jewellery or weaving or even just pop up on deck and marvel as the sun went down.
As the sun sets ...
And then one evening the crew had a special surprise for those who waited up till nightfall around 9.30 p.m. (not everyone!) Thousands - and I mean thousands - of candles floated silently down the river towards us. Tightly packed and taking up the entire expanse of the river it was an awe-inspiring sight. It was such a moving experience that my camera 'blew up'! The silence on board was amazing. So you will just have to imagine it. It was one of those unforgetable moments in time. The piece de resistance! And I missed recording it! (I am waiting hopefully for copies from friends. I will post if they come to hand). 

So until next time when we'll 'get off the boat' and explore the shore!