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The Coromandel Peninsula

After about 3 days in Auckland, Eugenio and I realized that our initial plan was utter crap.  The idea seemed like a good one: find work and temporary housing in New Zealand’s biggest city, ride out the cold winter by earning/saving money so that we didn’t have to stress about finding work when the summer came. That was all and good, until we got here and realized that the cost of living in Auckland is so high that any earnings from a temporary/seasonal job would be quickly spent.  Not particularly keen on the idea of dipping into our savings, we decided to figure something else out.  Plan B?  Head East to the Coromandel Peninsula, which has relatively mild winters, and WWOOF it.

Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a world-wide organization which puts travelers in touch with local farmers. The idea is that in exchange for 20-25hrs/week, you’ll receive full room and board along with an incredible opportunity to live with the locals and learn a bit about agriculture, gardening, bee-keeping, building, you name it.  It was a similar organization led me to meet my beloved family in Tuscany back in the summer of 2011 (I can’t believe that was over 2 years ago).

Anyway, a quick search led us to a family-run Macadamia orchard near Hahei, a town with a population of 270 in the winter and 7,000 in the summer. It’s a holiday retreat for many Kiwis, but we took full advantage of being here in the off-season; we had it all to ourselves. Stunning coastline, gorgeous mountains, clean air, and peace & quiet. Lots and lots of quiet. Bedtime was frequently 9pm because there was really nothing else to do once the sun went down.

But there was much to do during the day!  The beach down the road was home to a cockle and pipi bed (read: types of clams I’ve never heard of). The beach 10 minutes away was home to natural hot springs. The Pacific Coast was full of gorgeous Snapper, Gurnard, and Kahawai just waiting to be hooked.  An organic garden with beautiful lettuces, beets, herbs, beans, lemons, tamarillos, avocadoes. When asked if we could stay until mid-September, we couldn’t think of any reason not to!

So it was in this little slice of paradise that we planted for the past 2 months, enjoying a much slower, healthy, wholesome pace.  The following are a few photos from around the Orchard and in the Hahei area (click on a photo and scroll through):

Myanmar Lesson #5 – All Options Have Pros and Cons

Our pre-trip research led us to believe that the bus ride from Inle Lake to the pagoda-studded plains of Bagan would likely end in disaster. Bloggers have described the minibus journey as the worst experience of their lives: 50+ people crammed into 30 seats, choked by dust, suffocated by heat and nauseated by tight turns and projectile vomit. Trip Duration: 12 hours. Yeah, thanks but we’ll pass.

Getting from Point A to Point B anywhere in Myanmar requires an incredible amount of planning, flexibility, and patience. Whether it be by train, boat, plane or bus, the infrastructure is simply not conducive to traveling long distances. Short distances too, for that matter.

The 20mph seven-hour train ride was a perfect example. But in most cases, apart from the discomfort and time, you can assume you’ll arrive safely at your destination. In most cases.

With no train option from Inle Lake to Bagan, we opted to hire a private driver which was cheaper than the flight and faster than a vomit-filled bus. Other bonuses included: leg room, air conditioning, and the flexibility to stop whenever and wherever we wanted. But as always, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Sharing the Road

Burma has a unique driving situation. They kept the colonial-era British cars (driver on the right side), but they drive like Americans & Europeans on the right side of the road. Further complicating matters was the fact that the two-lane roads are home to numerous modes of travel: trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, cars, ox cart, horse carriages, and walkers. Despite the lack of passing lanes and sidewalks, passing was typically an easy affair. To signal our presence and the fact that we wanted to pass, the driver honked his horn (10+ times seemed to be the norm). At that point it’s the responsibility of the slower moving person/vehicle/animal to move to the right or risk getting hit.

Passing a larger vehicle was a bit trickier, especially on a curvy mountain road. Slow-moving buses and trucks often flashed their left-hand turn signal as a way to signal to our driver that the coast was clear to pass. But this was more a friendly gesture than a rule of the road. In the event that the driver in front did not give us the “Okay to Pass” signal, the driver would attempt to pass anyway. It’s a horrible system because the lack of a the turn signal means one of two things: 1) it’s not okay to pass, or 2) I’m not a friendly driver and I can’t be bothered to let you know that the coast is clear.

So what would you do in the following situation: you’re driving on the right side of the car, on the right side of a narrow, curvy, two-lane road and you have a bus in front of you. Do you a) wait for the bus to signal to you that it’s safe to pass, b) ask the passenger on the left to check if the coast is clear, or c) try to pass on your own and cross your fingers?

Clearly option A was not in the cards – there was no telling how long it would be before the road straightened out and we negotiated a flat fee, so the driver was motivated to get us to our destination in the least amount of time. Option B was difficult considering the language barrier, though I think gestures would have been okay in this case; but rather than attempt to communicate, the driver simply continued to chew his betel nut and chose option C, the source of my first grey hairs.

Sharing the Road (2)

Poor Eugenio was sitting in the passenger seat. So as the driver slowly inched into the on-coming lane, completely blind, it was Eugenio that saw first whether or not we were in for a head-on collision.  Lip biting, white-knuckles, breath-holding, sweating, and stomach churning were the norm and for the sake of the sanity of my parents (who do read this blog from time to time), I won’t go into any more detail of that horrific journey.

Let’s just say that we stepped out of the car, ecstatic to be in one piece and with an important lesson learned. Even the vomit-filled bus option had its merit: we wouldn’t have been fearing for our lives.

Tresette – the world’s best and most confusing card game (part 2)

Now that we’ve mastered the 40-card Italian Deck, we can start to learn the basics of Tresette.

While the game can be played with only two players, we’ll stick to the four-player version to keep things simple. The pairs sitting opposite one another play together as a team. The cards are dealt out counter-clockwise (so unnatural!!!), ten to each player. The person to the right of the dealer leads with any card of his choice.  The play continues counter-clockwise, and the other players must follow suit.  If they are void (no cards in that suit), they may play any card of their choosing.  The player with the highest card in the led suit takes the trick and leads the next trick with a card of his choice.

The play continues until all cards are finished, concluding a round.  The teams combine the tricks they’ve taken and count their points. There are 11 points in each round, the first team to 41 points wins the game.  Not too bad, right?

Now for the complicated part:

Card Rankings: the 3 is the highest card, followed by the 2, then ace, king, horse man and page boy.  Then 7, 6, 5 in that order and finally, the utterly worthless card, the 4.

Points: while the 3 is the highest card, it is not the most valuable.

  • The aces are valued at one point each (4 total).
  • All 2s, 3s, kings, horse men, and page boys are worth 1/3 of a point each (6 and 2/3 total). And just when you thought 3rd Grade mathematics wasn’t useful!
  • All other cards have no point value.
  • An additional point is awarded to the team who collects the last trick of the round.
  • Total points possible each round is therefore 11 and 2/3. However, teams may only score a whole number (ex. a team with 6 and 2/3 points has scored only 6).

Bonus Points: when the cards are dealt, if a player has the 3, 2, and ace of a single suit (called “Napoli”), or if he has three 3s, three 2s, or 3 aces, he may call “Buon Gioco” (good game) which awards his team an extra three points at the end of the round.  Upon declaration of “Buon Gioco.” the opposing team may ask the player what his buon gioco is. If asked, the player MUST declare the cards that make up his buon gioco before the start of the 4th trick (ex. “three aces – all but the ace of coins” or “Napoli in cups”). If he fails to declare his buon gioco before the 4th trick, his team is not awarded the bonus points. If the opposing team fails to ask, he does not need to reveal his buon gioco.

Communication Rules: Tresette is known as il gioco dei muti (the game of mutes) because it’s considered cheating to communicate with your partner.  No special signals or motions are allowed. There is one exception: the player who leads the trick may make one statement about the suit that he plays.

Examples:

  • “Volo” – I fly. Means that it is your last card in that suit.
  • “Ho l’asso” – I have the ace.
  • “Ho altre 3 lisci” – I have another 3 low cards (in this suit). Could be used with any number.
  • “E’ buono” – it’s good. Means that the led card is the highest remaining in that suit.

Instead of revealing what you have, you may instead choose to command something of your partner.

Examples:

  • “Voglio il tre” – I want the 3. If your partner has the 3 of that suit, he should play it. Basically, it implies that you have the 2 & the Ace; with the 3 out of play, your 2 and ace are the highest cards in that suit.
  • Similarly, “Voglio il due” – I want the 2 – implies that you have the 3 and the ace.
  • “Gioca il meglio che hai” – Play the highest you’ve got. Your partner will play their best card and if they take the trick, they should return with the same suit.

While it’s an opportunity to tell your partner what you do and don’t have in your hand, you need to be careful not to reveal too much information because your opponents are listening too. There are situations in which it’s best not to say anything and just see how the cards play out.

And that’s Tresette!

The beauty of the game isn’t in the rules, it’s in the strategy. A good memory is crucial – you must pay attention to how many and which cards of each suit have been played.

Since the aces are the most valuable, the strategy revolves around playing the aces when you know your team will take the trick. If you know your partner is void in a suit, lead with the highest remaining card (saying “e’ buono”) and it will give him an opportunity to dump an ace of a different suit and score a point for your team. Likewise, if you have the two & ace of a suit, and the opponent leads and says “ho il 3”, then you can safely play your ace knowing that it’ll take the trick.

But don’t forget all the other cards that’ll earn points as well.  If you’re void, don’t throw away a page boy unless you know your partner will take the trick. That card is still worth 1/3 a point, and all those little thirds add up!!

Now let’s go back to that evening that Eugenio “offered to teach me how to play a classic Italian card game”…imagine trying to learn the new deck of cards as well as the rules in the same evening. All in a foreign language. I had no idea what I had signed up for and to be honest, there were moments where I had to hold back tears out of sheer frustration. But Eugenio, patient and loving as always, has since played hundreds of games (the two-player version), always walking me through the strategy and explaining my errors or incorrect assumptions.  I won’t say I’m a master, that would be his brother, Jonny. But I will say the realization that I had grown confident in my ability as a Tresette player was a moment I will never forget. A moment of utter triumph in my conquest to immerse myself in a foreign culture and language.

Onward!

Tresette – the world’s best and most confusing card game (part 1)

A quick way to earn an Italian’s respect is to tell them you know how to play “Tresette.”  A favorite among old men and commonly played during the holiday festivities, this is not just a card game. It’s a fierce competition in which the smallest error, be it a memory lapse or bad assumption, can result in endless agony.

I love cards and board games, just ask my neighbor growing up. We spent all our rainy days battling in games of Gin Rummy, Monopoly, and Poker (remember what life was like for a kid before the internet?!?!?).  So when Eugenio offered to teach me how to play a classic Italian card game, I naturally jumped at the offer. But before I could learn the game, I had to learn the cards.  Should be simple, right?

Hahahahahhahaha. No.

We aren’t dealing with clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades anymore.  Oh no, that would have been too easy.  We’ve got the Italian deck which has Denaro (coins), Bastone (clubs/sticks), Spade (swords), and Coppe (cups).

And you know how our decks of cards give you the hint in the upper right and lower left corners? The number and symbol so that you don’t need to see the whole card to know what you’re holding?  Yeah, you can forget about those too. Non-existent.

The card makers love to mess with you by adding all sorts of random décor, just to distract you from being able to determine the value of the card. The ace of swords comes complete with a flying angel and ribbons while the ace of coins would makes his debut on the breast of an eagle. Um, what?Asso

And don’t even get me started on this card:

cinque di spade

There are 4 clearly visible swords plus an additional horizontal sword in the center.  But what are those other half-swords popping out of the two vases??!?!?  Are they plants or swords??!?! Why on earth are they blue?!?!?!  I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was playing the 7 of swords when really it was this damn 5.

Are we having fun yet?

So rather than 52 cards, there are only 40.  Ten to each suit.  Ace through 7 and then the Italian equivalent of Jack, Queen and King…which I’ve affectionately nicknamed Page Boy, Horse Man, and King.  The Italians just call them “8, 9, and 10.” While the horse man is easy to identify since he’s got his four-legged friend, the page boy and king are confusing.  Hint: you have to take a look at their headgear. Only the king wears a crown, the page boys are stuck with feathers.

face cards

Quick review: we’ve got well-decorated aces through sevens, page boys, horsemen, and kings in swords, cups, sticks, and coins. Right. And now that we’re all thoroughly confused, we can start to learn the rules of Tresette. To be continued…

Hot Water Beach

Being in the Southern Hemisphere means that early August is the dead of winter.  The wind howls, the ocean is numbing, and it gets dark at 5pm.  You can move your swim suit to the back of your drawer; it’s not going to get any use for the next few months.

Unless you’re on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula.

Hot Water Beach (yes, that is the official name) is home to two underground hot springs. I know, I know. Hot Springs aren’t exactly the most earth shattering topic to write about. So what makes these ones blog-worthy?

First, the fact that you’ve gotta check your tide tables.  Second, they come with a stunning ocean view.

Hot Water Beach

The springs are covered by the surf for the majority of the day.  However, at low tide the ocean recedes far enough to make them accessible. Grab a shovel and BAM!  Instant spa!!

The water at its exit point is 64C (147F) – too hot for most.  But simply dig a few feet from the center and the cold water from the ocean mixes with the hot water to create the temperature of your choosing.

Don’t get too comfortable – when the tide comes back in, that water’s freeeeeeezing!

A World of Updates

Nearly four months have come and gone since my last post. I’ve been busy. Very busy. I haven’t been able to make the time to write and now I find myself HORRIBLY backlogged.  So many ideas, so many thoughts, so many observations, and with a new country to call home, my list is growing at a rapid rate.

April flew by. I went home on a surprise visit for my mom’s birthday and took the opportunity to introduce everyone to my favorite Roman. The time passed in the blink of an eye, and I find myself wondering why on earth I thought that 10 days was enough to see everyone I care about, show Eugenio my old stomping ground, and get my fill of all the foods I’ve been missing for the last two years (namely Mexican). It simply wasn’t enough time. To anyone I missed in Portland, and to those I couldn’t see in California: I must say I learned an important lesson. The next visit will be substantially longer, allowing me to spend time with all those I hold near to my heart.

So prior to my Ptown visit, my list of blog topics looked something like this:

  • finish writing and editing photos for Myanmar (trip taken 01/2013)
  • finish writing and editing photos for Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro (trip taken 08/2012)
  • start and finish writing for Morocco (trip taken 04/2012)
  • post ~10 different Italian “Parola del Giorno” posts (wait ’til you hear what the Italian word for ankle socks is!)

At the end of April, I had added an entirely different topic to that list: what it’s like to visit home after being away for over 2 years and how it feels to be a foreigner in a place which you still call “home.” I’m still sorting through that experience and what it means.

Then May came and went. I finished teaching my English lessons in Rome and celebrated my 30th birthday by paintballing with a group of friends. If anyone ever has an opportunity to watch 15 Italians run around pretending to be Rambo, I highly recommend it!

June was a whirlwind of packing, a 6-day tour through Puglia (the heel of Italy’s boot), saying goodbyes, and trying to savor every last bite of my favorite cuisine…all in preparation for the next adventure:

*drum roll please*

New Zealand!!  Eugenio and I both got Working Holiday visas which will enable us to work as we travel through the land of Land of the Maori, Kiwis and Hobbits!!  We arrived on July 11th on a one-way ticket with no plan and no itinerary (as it should be).

So my “to write” list continues to grow.  I am going to do my best to keep on top of my blogging for my experiences in New Zealand…if I’m lucky, I’ll also be able to carve out some time to write about the other things on the list.  So my apologies in advance for the disjointedness of the articles as I play catch up!

Until further notice, I am in New Zealand!

Roman Rivalry

April 8, 2013: A.S. Roma vs. S.S. Lazio, 20:45

Ask any Romano what he was doing last night, and I guarantee he’d look at you as if you were crazy. It’s a stupid question with an obvious answer. Last night was “il Derby.”

Technically, the term is applied to any game between two teams of the same city. Northern Italy has the Inter vs. Milan Derby and the Juventus vs. Torino Derby. But in the capital city, there is only one Derby worth talking about: the matchup between A.S. Roma and S.S. Lazio. Both teams call Rome’s Stadio Olimpico their home stadium; the Laziali occupy Curva Nord and the Romanisti claim the Curva Sud. The curve you choose is a lifelong decision that defines you.

“Ciao, mi chiamo Katie, ho 29 anni, e tifo la Roma.” Hi, my name is Katie, I’m 29 years old, and I support AS Roma.

This rivalry runs deep in the blood of Roman veins. To a Romanista, there is no greater insult than “Sei proprio della Lazio” – you truly support Lazio. I’m sure there’s a similar insult for a Laziale, but I’m not friends with anyone who wears sky blue and white…so I couldn’t tell you.

The Roman Derby not just a game, it is THE game. It’s an opportunity to prove who is the dominate team of the Capitale. The years of unwavering dedication and love for your team combined with a deep-rooted loathing of the “other” team, means that the Derby is 90 minutes of sweating, screaming, cussing, nail-biting, hair-pulling, stress and frustration. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows so close together, I’m convinced that it’s going to give me a heart attack, or at least take a few years off my life.

Last night’s Derby was no exception. In the 15th minute of the first half, Lazio’s Hernanes scored to give Lazio the lead in the first half. A missed penalty kick by the same Hernanes in the second half gave new life to Roma. Less than 10 minutes later, we had a breakaway and the last Lazio defender committed a foul against our forward – automatic penalty kick for Roma! And with that, our beloved Capitano Francesco Totti, a 36-year-old demi-God who has worn a Roma jersey his entire career and can do no wrong, set yet another record: 9 career Derby goals.

To give just a hint of the fanaticism of a Romanista, compare the reaction of commentator Carlo Zampa when Hernanes scored to his reaction when Totti scored. You don’t need to speak Italian to understand who he’s rooting for:

Much to the frustration of all tifosi (fans), this Derby ended in a 1-1 draw. A bit of a let-down, but it does set everything up nicely for the end of the season as both teams are in the running for the Coppa Italia – Italy Cup – a single round, knockout tournament played by Italian teams from all levels (Serie A, Serie B, and Serie C). The winner gets the Cup title and a ticket to next year’s Europa League.

The final is played at Stadio Olimpico, regardless of the teams, but this year there is a very strong possibility that we’ll see another Derby for the Coppa Italia title. With Lazio’s win over Juventus in January, they secured their spot in the Final. On April 17th, AS Roma faces off with Inter. In the event that (read “when”) Roma wins, the Coppa Italia Final on May 26th will be yet another Derby. Please pray for my health.

FORZA ROMA!!!!!!!

Parola del Giorno #7 – La Seppia

A few weeks ago, my printer ran out of ink which meant it was time to learn a bit of new vocabulary. At this point, my Italian is good enough that I can work my way around an unknown word, I could easily walk into a store and ask, “Excuse me, do you sell………..the black stuff that a printer uses to write?” While it’s a pretty effective way to get your point across, I still want to improve my vocabulary.

When my printer flashed the dreaded low-ink light, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “Fra poco mi servirà la seppia.” I’m going to need ink soon.

“Non ti preoccupare, ci sono tanti locali che la vendono.” Don’t worry, there are a lot of places that sell it. I continued to mention my need of “la seppia” for the better part of a week, until I finally had a free morning to run some errands.

I called Eugenio to ask him exactly where I could find “la seppia.” He told me that there was a shop next to his bar, but he didn’t give me much more detail. No problem, his aunt & brother were working at the bar that morning so I could get the rest of the information from them, all while enjoying my usual cappuccino and cornetto.

“Dov’è quel negozio qua vicino che vende la seppia per stampanti?” Where is the shop near here which sells “la seppia” for printers?

No response. I was surrounded by blank stares and puzzled faces.

I’ve become used to this reaction though; it usually means that I’ve been sloppy with my pronunciation. I repeated my question, paying special attention to my cadence and careful to correctly roll my rrrrrrrrrs.

Again, blank stares. Okay is my accent really that thick?!?

“La seppia per una stampante?” asked Eugenio’s aunt.

“Si!” relieved that finally someone was able to repeat what I was trying to communicate. Once someone with a native tongue repeats what I said, everyone is usually on the same page.

But no, everyone still remained confused. Okay, something’s not right.

I heard Cico, a regular at the bar, say “Bella, dovresti andare alla pescheria per trovare la seppia.”  You’d have to go to a fish market to find la seppia. And at that point everyone busted up laughing.

Wait, what?!?

And then it hit me. I never actually consulted a dictionary to determine what the Italian word for “ink” was.  I used “la seppia” because it’s always written on the menu for squid-ink pasta. If I had paid more attention, I would have realized that the dish is called “pasta al nero di seppia” – literally, pasta with the black from a seppia.

“Nero” refers to the ink.

“Seppia” is the animal that produces the ink.

Which meant that I was essentially asking for a place that sells squid for my printer.

After a good laugh at my expense, Eugenio’s aunt informed me that the word for ink is “inchiostro,” and with this knowledge I was able to buy a new printer cartridge. But first I made a quick phone call to my darling boyfriend to chew him out for not having once corrected me. I must have used “la seppia” incorrectly a dozen times.

His defense? “Well, I knew what you meant…so I let it go.”

And therein lies one of the challenges of a life in a foreign language: you make mistakes, and you make them often. People don’t want to correct you because they find your errors endearing. You don’t want to be corrected too much, or else you lose confidence.

But at the same time, you also don’t want to walk around asking for squid for your printer.

While I have no answer for how often one should correct a non-native speaker, I will say that I learned a critical lesson: to learn a new word, I need to consult a dictionary rather than a menu (or my boyfriend for that matter).

pescheria-friggitoria

Happy Anniversary to Me!

On March 29, 2011, I packed my bags and boarded a one-way flight…destination: World.

That was the last time I set foot on American soil and I haven’t looked back since. Globetrotter, permanent traveller, expat, vagabond, nomad. These are the shoes that fit me best, and I’m still breaking them in. So tonight I’m celebrating the anniversary of the day I had the courage to break the mold and set off into unfamiliar territory. What an adventure it’s been, and I’m confident that the best has yet to come.

Two years down, a lifetime to go. Onward!

re-birthday

Myanmar Lesson #4: Wake Up Early

I am the epitome of a morning grump. I absolutely hate waking up, I hit snooze an embarrassingly high number of times, and if I haven’t had any caffeine, you better not attempt conversation. Regardless of the previous night’s activities or the day ahead, every morning is an uphill battle. It is only because I’m a Gemini that I can also say with a straight face that dawn in my favorite time of the day. It’s the magical moment when the world wakes up, slowly and gracefully transitioning from night to day.

So when the alarm rang on Sunday morning at 5:15am, despite wearing my grumpy pants, I rolled out of bed, put on my layers and braved the frigid walk to the docks (while telling myself, “this better be *#&^-ing worth it”). We climbed into our hired boat and cruised through the fog to the middle of Inle Lake, just in time to see the sun creep over the mountains. Coffee or no coffee, it was the best decision we made during our time in Myanmar.

The combination of the dim, early-morning light and the fog was so surreal that the Intha fishermen, working with their unique rowing technique, looked like ghosts of the past. With one leg planted firmly at the stern, they wrap the other leg around the oar and carefully maneuver the long-bottomed boat. This method leaves their hands free to cast their nets. And the overall effect is mesmerizing.

Inle lake is unusually shallow and reaches its maximum depth of 12ft. (3.5 meters) only during the rainy season. The lake floor is covered with tall reeds, making it difficult to see below the surface. By standing upright the fisherman achieve an angle that enables them to better see any signs of fish hiding in the reeds; and with their hands free, they can act quickly to maneuver their nets.

Myanmar Lesson #3: Slow Isn’t Always Steady

…and it most certainly doesn’t always win the race.

After having spent a week in Myanmar, we were accustomed to the feeling of going back in time. We were used to seeing horse and ox carts on the streets. We had learned not to expect hot water and stable electricity. We weren’t surprised when the bank told us at 10:30am that they were waiting for the official exchange rate from Yangon and so we couldn’t exchange our money. Buses without doors, bathrooms without toilets (just a simple hole), dishes washed in a river or lake, bicycles with sidecars, cars with diesel engines spewing out black smoke…after a while, you adjust.

And that’s precisely when Myanmar throws you another curve ball:

  • The Journey: Nyuang U (Bagan Valley) to Mandalay
  • The Distance: approx 200km (125 miles)
  • Duration: 7 hours
  • Average Speed: 28.5 km/h or 18mph
  • Method of Transport: train
  • Departure Time: 7:00am

Our adventure started at 6:30am at the ticket office inside the Nyuang U train station. It’s not possible to purchase tickets in advance, online or otherwise, but we were told that a half hour was needed to obtain tickets and board the train.  We were only 4th in line, so we had more than enough time, right?

Wrong. 25 minutes and 3 customers later, we approached the window, handed over our passports, held up 3 fingers and said, “Mandalay?” at which point we figured out why this process was painfully slow.  The man behind the counter, working by candlelight, started to handwrite our tickets on carbon copy paper – something I haven’t witnessed in at least 20 years. And since the Burmese alphabet has absolutely no resemblance to our own, watching him write our names and passport numbers in English was nothing but torture. Once at the counter, it took 10 minutes to buy our tickets.

Ticket

Luckily, they held the train for us and for the remaining people in line. We climbed into our “Upper Class” cabin. Normally I don’t splurge on first class treatment, but we heard stories about the normal class: wood benches, enormous bags of produce, seat-less passengers filling the aisles and thereby making the bathroom inaccessible. I could handle that for an hour or two, but 7 hours was a bit much.

We departed after settling into our spacious, permanently reclining seats. And we shortly discovered that no “Upper Class” comfort in the world could have prepared us for this journey.  At times it was like being in bed when my younger sisters were jumping all around me.  At other times it felt like trotting on a horse while swaying side to side like a ship in a storm.  Bumpy, shaky, jerky, rocky, noisy, and likely to cause panic attacks. I took this video in an attempt to capture the motion of the train, this wasn’t even the worst of it:

Why did it take 7 hours to go 200 kilometers?  We had thought it was due to the number of stops, but in reality it was because the train could not physically go any faster without risking derailment. We were lucky that we all have strong stomachs. And thank god we weren’t on wooden benches!!

Myanmar Lesson #2: Watch Your Step

Betel Stained

Both the Thais and the Burmese love to smile, but there is one striking difference. Don’t expect any pearly whites because Burma is a betel-chewing country, and wow does it leave its mark! Described by my boyfriend as “an explosion of spice that gives you a light, airy feeling and makes your mouth go numb,” chewing the betel nut has another side effect: it turns your lips, gums, and teeth red. Luckily for Eugenio, it doesn’t appear to be permanent, at least not for a first-timer.

Betel Nut stand

To fuel the Myanmar’s biggest habit, betel stands are on every street corner and in every market. Operated by one person, each stand contains a pile of bright green betel leaves, a bowl of chopped betel nuts, a jar of slaked lime (used as glue), and several containers of spices including: anise, cardamom seeds, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, rose powder, tobacco, etc. The Chewer approaches the stand and selects his choice of spices, and the Betel Man gets to work. He applies the slaked lime paste to the leaf, places the spices in the middle, carefully folds the leaf into a nice package, and places it in a small plastic bag. Each bag contains 4-5 of these betel packets, to be consumed throughout the day. We were told that similar to smoking, betel-chewing helps curb hunger and keeps you awake.

Street SpitBut the real fun begins after a few minutes when the chewing has stimulated the excess production of saliva. Loogie hocking is apparently a form of art, and the Burmese are professionals. The sound of snorting & gathering of phlegm is constant and the streets, sidewalks, and buildings are covered with these red, chunky splatterings. So you best watch your step.

Myanmar Lesson #1: Use Your Head

When it comes to using your head, Burmese women have got to be some of the most skilled on earth. Anything regardless of shape, size, or weight, could be balanced on their heads and carried throughout town. External distruptions to one’s balance, like a squirming baby or a ridiculously bumpy train (more on this later), didn’t seem to disrupt their poise and elegance. Being the clumsy oaf that I am, all I could do was marvel. And step out of their way.

Here are a few photos I was able to snap on the streets and in the markets throughout the country:

Myanwhere?

Flipping through the first few pages of any guidebook, you’ll usually find some sort of list which explains all the reasons to visit a particular country: art, national parks, museums/monuments,
people, nightlife, traditions, food, etc. I found an exception. The top of page 28 of the Lonely Planet – Myanmar (Burma) reads something like this:

Don’t Visit Myanmar If…

If you don’t like to compromise on such things as food and hotel quality, and/or have a low tolerance for last-minute changes of plan or being denied conveniences such as guaranteed round-the-clock power, use of ATMs and credit cards, your mobile phone and the internet, then perhaps Myanmar isn’t for you.

Call me crazy, but I was intrigued rather than discouraged.  A third world country whose government was determined to isolate its people from the outside world (more on this later)…what would it be like?  What types of customs do the Burmese practice, what traditions do they honor? What do they think of their government, considered to be second only to Somalia as the most corrupt in the world? What do they eat & drink, and how? What do they wear? What is their day-to-day like?  How would they react to me and how could we communicate?  My list of questions and curiosities was endless, and I knew that the answers couldn’t be found without firsthand experience. I needed to see it for myself, so at that point I got my favorite travel buddies on board and booked our flights, unsure of what to expect…

…we returned last Sunday (Feb. 3rd) battered, bruised, exhausted, dehydrated (massive loss of bodily fluids, won’t go into details), and overwhelmed. But I truly believe that the most difficult travel is also the most rewarding; Myanmar was no exception. We took ourselves off the well-trodden, wide, smooth, paved SE Asia Tourist Trail and chose Myanmar’s rocky, narrow, dusty path with blind corners and obstacles around every turn. A very trying adventure, but we were greeted by a people and a way of life that in absolutely no way resembles anything from home (in Italy or the USA). And those experiences, those moments with a beautiful people, made it all worthwhile.

Viva Viva La Befana!!

La Befana

La Befana (Americana)

La Befana vien di notte

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Con il vestito alla romana

Viva viva la Befana!**

We decided to throw party for all the neighborhood kids last night and yours truly played the role of La Befana, an old haggard woman who goes from house to house delivering stockings full of candy (if you’ve been good) or coal (if you’ve been bad).

A loud *CRACK*, a cloud of smoke, and a flash of red light announced my arrival on the terrazza. I got off my broomstick and dragged my sack into the kitchen where nearly 20 kids waited eagerly for their stocking which, by magic, had their names written on them. Half woman, half witch, La Befana is old, extremely ugly, and known for startling children by coughing and sneezing when they attempt to give her a kiss…which they must do in order to receive their stocking.

This was by far my favorite of the Italian Feste during the Christmas Season, and it’s really too bad that La Befana never made it into American culture. I know a few dads & uncles who would leap at the opportunity to dress up as an ugly witch and scare little kids!

**Translation: La Befana comes at night with completely broken shoes and Roman dress. Long live La Befana!!  As with most poetry, this chime is ten times better in its original language.