Saturday, December 17, 2016

Myanmar, Day 1: Doha Departure & Yangon Arrival

Friday evening, the three of us left Doha at 8:20PM and flew 5½ hours before landing at our destination: Yangon, Myanmar. Some people are not familiar with Myanmar and recognize the country by its former name, Burma. Even though I was relieved of my scholastic responsibilities by 3PM on Thursday and could then leave the country, we couldn't leave then as there were no flights available. So, after school on Thursday, we went to see the new movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the Gulf Mall, ate a quick meal at Shake Shack and then went home to open Christmas presents. We wanted to open our Christmas presents so early, because we would be traveling on the holiday, and, even though there weren't very many gifts, we didn't want to lug them around during our vacation. In any case, Vito had customized his letter to Santa this year and held out hopes that the naughty-or-nice guardian would leave something particular under our tree in Doha and also deliver something to him wherever we were in our travels.

There is about a five hour time different between Qatar and Myanmar so, even though the flight was relatively short, we arrived in the morning (which would have made it around 2AM for us if we had stayed in Qatar). I don't remember doing much aside from eating on the plane. We were served a beverage and a light snack shortly after taking-off and then served breakfast just before landingit seemed excessive for such a short flight, but we weren't really complaining. After disembarking, clearing customs, gathering our two suitcases, exchanging US dollars for Myanmarian Kyats (sounds like 'chat') and arranging a taxi to our hotel, we reached our final destination, the Merchant Art Boutique Hotel, by 7:30AM. The few couches in the small lobby were full of guests with their backpacks and luggage who looked like they had also just arrived on the same early flight as us, which wasn't a good sign, and we were really much too early to check in so the room wasn't ready. We asked to leave our suitcases, and, even though both Angela and I had not slept much (Vito had slept for about three hours) we coated ourselves with mosquito repellant and headed out to explore the neighborhood around our hotel.

The location turned out to be quite well-considered. Winding our way through the criss-cross streets and through a roadside market that was readying itself for another day, we stumbled across a small temple, removed our shoes and socks, and entered to look around. It was relatively unremarkable aside from a large pond brimming with gigantic catfish. When we had finished, we climbed a tall hill, a wood-covered and columned stairway lined with vendors, to the entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda, perhaps Myanmar's most famous sight. The high walls were decorated with elaborate and brightly painted scenes carved into wood. We paid the 24,000 Kyat foreign entrance fee (approximately$18) and received a brochure that indicated multiple entrances, one at each of the east, north, south and west entrances.

videoThe stunning central stupaa great, wide, golden, pregnant behemoth around which every other structure crowdedcould be seen from the bottom of the hill and was surrounded by statues and stupas and towers of all shapes and sizes, most of them covered in gold or gold leaf or painted gold, and all of them surrounding the main immense stupa in the center of the complex. The site was an impressive and surreal feast for the senses. Starting with the removal of footwear, which put us in contact with the world in a way that we were not used to, we joined the monks in their maroon robes, the nuns in their pink ones, and the rest of the pilgrims and tourists thronging around the great stupa. We could smell incense and hear bells and gongs reverberating through the complex periodically. People were kneeling and praying, lighting candles and setting out flowers. Many of the stupas, studded with diamonds and other jewels, were crowned with a circular lattice of bells that could be heard tinkling faintly in the breeze.We spent a couple of hours exploringVito discovered that there were numerous bells to strike, and he made it his mission to seek them out. We also learned that there were eight 'corners' around the stupa, and that each of them corresponded with an entrance and at which water could be poured over a representative statue. There were nice Myanmar men (identifiable by the longyis that, incidentally, both men and women worewide garments wrapped around the waist and tied in a knot at the frontthat they were wearing) with laminated cards who could identify anyone's day of birth, so we all learned what the days or our birth and then looked for the respective animals (Angela's animal was a rat, Vito's a tiger, and mine the lion) to bathe the Buddha statue in that location. We were tired and thirsty and hungry so we returned to our hotel to see if we could check in, but it was still too early. The hotel's restaurant was, at least, open for breakfast by then, so we found a table to sit down and eat.

The buffet food was nothing to brag about with the exception of mohinga, a kind traditional Burmese noodle dish incorporating chickpea flour and fish paste among other typical ingredients, which we tried here for the first time. After eating, our room was still not ready. Vito was exhausted and went to sleep on a sofa in an empty lounge next to the restaurant and I waited in the lobby. Angela stayed with Vito, resting herself, and noticed, too late, that Vito was getting bitten by mosquitoes. We were worried about mosquito bites, because we had heard that the prevalence of Dengue fever was higher in recent months due to a wetter than usual rainy season. Anyhow, by about 12PM, our room was finally ready, we settled in to take a nap.

We went out again at around 4PM and, not really knowing what else to do, we went back to Shwedagon Pagoda. We had read that it was particularly beautiful at sunrise or sunset and, having missed sunrise, thought to return there for a walk before looking for 999 Shan Noodle Shop restaurant for dinner.

It was about thirty minutes before closing and the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant was full when we arrived, but the waiters made room for us at a table with another couple so we didn't have to wait for a seat. When space at a larger table opened up, they moved us to that table where two German guys were already eating. The noodles were remarkable and we made small talk with our table mates wishing them a happy holidays when they finished eating and left the table. We were the last to finish and caught a cab back to our hotel. We weren't quite ready for bed, and we went up to the rooftop bar of our hotel, which had a lovely view of Swedagon Pagoda.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Holiday Season

We're in the middle of the holiday season again, or, well, it was closer to the middle last week when I started writing this post. Anyway, I have always loved this time of the year—and I still do—even though it's a little different in the desert. For instance, with the call to prayer sounding out across the city, we went to the beach to go swimming last Friday morning, which is not a typically winter activity for us. In past years, it has been too cool to enjoy the beach, but this year has been an exception. Even though the holidays are a little different here, Angela and I still want to expose Vito to our traditions while he develops these new ones...

The holiday season really starts with Halloween on the last day of October. Many here in Qatar consider Halloween a forbidden celebration, but events still take place in the ex-pat communities. There is a certain amount of preparation involved in the requisite holiday costuming necessary for Halloween, so the hype actually begins a little before the end of the month. There are enough activities and parties, however, so that we don't miss the holiday's purer stateside version. Vito's school, The American School of Doha, usually holds a gigantic Halloween carnival complete with carnival games, haunted hallways and trick-or-treating (although it was cancelled this year due to construction on campus), but, in addition to what his school has established, for the past few years, Vito has also gone trick-or-treating in multiple compounds around Doha.

The next holiday is Thanksgiving, which arrives at the end of November. For the past five years, we have brined and baked a turkey, and invited guests to a Thanksgiving potluck dinner at our apartment. Thursday is the end of the work week here and, as most adults work during the day, we have started throwing our party on the day after Thanksgiving. Many of our guests are not American, so it has changed the flavor of the event, somewhat, but it has become a nice new tradition for us and for the few that have annually returned. The day after the party, we clean up the Thanksgiving mess, put the Christmas tree together and decorate for that holiday.

As usual, Christmas really throws its weight around at the end of December. Obviously, the Christmas emphasis is greatly reduced in this part of the world, but we do our best to celebrate. Last week, Angela and I strung a string of lights around our windows in the living room. As Angela is Italian and I am American, we have two slightly different ideas about how to celebrate Christmas, so navigating The expectations of The Befana, the family and Santa can be challenging. Christmas is always further complicated, because, once the semester ends, many teaching families leave to return to their native lands or to travel. It ends up shortening the time allotted for celebration considerably, because people have to get their social events arranged before people leave the city. We don't cut our own Christmas tree, either, as we used to do when Vito was a baby, but we have a little plastic Christmas tree to assemble that someone gave us when we first arrived here in Doha.

New Year's Eve caps off the holiday season on the last day of the year to ring in a new one, which closes out two full months of celebration-worthy occasions and chaos. Happy holidays!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving

thanks for living

thanks for divvying up your time to include some of mine

thanks for fine weather and friends
and enemies too and animals
and what begins and ends
and the rainbow that you might see at the heart of it

thanks for freeing what you love
for being above or below it or quite possibly
you don't know it
your first or last one
among stars
what's mine is ours

thanks for staying flowers or fading
and following the sun or the dark
hark! who cowers there
in some spark i loved

thanks for loving back or not
with your knack for nuance and niceties
you're easy to please
you tease sometimes
too much or too little

thanks for such-and-such
and hey-diddle-diddle
the cat and the fiddle
the cow jumped over the moon

thanks for too soon or late
two four six eight
who do we a-ppre-ci-ate

thanks for being great or green

thanks for making the scene
one you'll remember
be mine ember
i'm fine
you're so warm

thanks for charming me
indefinitely

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

In a Fog...

It has been a while since my last post, but so it goes...

I read a headline on Flipboard earlier this week about making time every day to write for fifteen minutes, but it took me all week to finally get started. When I sat down to write this morning, I answered an e-mail that had arrived some time ago, but it wasn't the type of writing that I had intended to do and it killed my fifteen minutes. Anyway, I'm going on my second fifteen minutes...

It has been foggy all week, but today it's not. The fog reminded me of living in California. When we first moved to Qatar and throughout, perhaps, our first two years here, the morning call to prayer, or Adhan, often woke up Vito in the morning. There's a mosque about one block from our compound, and the call to prayer, which is broadcast across the neighborhood, can be heard quite clearly from his bedroom. He seems to sleep through it now without difficulty.

About a week ago, however, there was an additional call to prayer or something of the sort--it didn't sound like the regular call to prayer. It woke Angela who emerged earlier than usual in the morning and commented on it. While we could not understand the broadcast, we assumed something out of the ordinary had happened.

Later that morning after arriving at the office and while standing in line at Starbucks, I asked a student about it. The student informed me that sometimes they have "extra credit" and that the Emir had prayed for rain. While not rain, the fog may be the closest we're getting to it for the time being...

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

il bruco mouve i piedini

il bruco mouve i piedini
(the caterpillar moves its little feet)

step over step
returning from market

there was no father or mother
no sisters or brothers
no aunts or uncles
no forty-two cousins to go fishing with

maybe’s going to die
chirped a bird

step over step
he ran as fast as his old legs could carry him
someone wants to harm my master
she thought

it’ll be safe to go to the river
said a cross squirrel

what’s’matter
asked a deer
popping corn in hot sand
with a stick

step over step
it was easy to get

--

My version of "The Decimator", Travis Macdonald's Impromptu #20 awaiting your curious discovery on The Found Poetry Review. In a few words, I transcribed source material from 10 books on my bookshelf and, after imposing Macdonald's erasure strategy, sculpted the above. I used books from my son Vito's bookshelf to limit my workload. Thanks, Asmaa Al-Qaysi, for that great idea!

Source material came from The American School of Doha's 2014-2015 Elementary Schools yearbook, Tabby McTat by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler, Pimpa: Buongiorno, Prato!, Who Would Win? Alligator Vs. Python by Jerry Pallotta, The Story of Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese, The Popcorn Book by Tomie de Paola, "I Can't" Said the Ant by Polly Cameron, The Selfish Crocodile by Faustin Charles and Michael Terry, Tikki Tikki Tembo retold by Arlene Mosel and a Wilco Publishing House version of an Arabian Nights story, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.