Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Mar 9 – A Sea Day

After five port days in a row, this was a much-anticipated sea day.  Of course, we had anticipated that MA would be on tour most of those days and we all know how that turned out.

It was a typical sea day.  Because we are still in a port-intensive period, Trivia for this segment will have just 7 days of cumulative games before the next payout.  We were first today, but that is relatively meaningless.

Dinner in the MDR was quiet.  We lost more passengers than we gained in Singapore and now have fewer than 900 passengers on board.  The late seating at dinner is always the less-subscribed and the MDR is even emptier now than it has been in 2 months.  MA enjoyed the Indian curry and D the fish.

We are back on the road tomorrow, so we skipped the show and read until “lights out.”

TOMORROW – Yangon, Myanmar

Mar 10 – Budhhas, Buddhas, Buddhas

It must have been the curry.  MA’s symptoms returned this morning.  Although she felt fine otherwise, she did not want to take a chance on a 90 minute drive from the ship to the city.

We were docked in Thiwala which has no passenger terminal and we had to use a shuttle bus to get to the gate to meet our guide, Han.  The ship was late getting here because of the tides but we were pretty much on time for our rendezvous.  The group today includes Ada & Chuck and Bill & Jane, who have toured with us before, and Harry and Misa who took Arthur and Linda’s place when they bailed out on us for a HAL tour. We were a bit worried when Harry announced that he uses a walker, but his mobility presented no problems during the day.

Han kept up a running dialog as we drove over washboard roads into Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon.  He was actually quite critical of the ruling military leaders who, he said, get all of Myanmar’s money but put nothing back into the infrastructure.  Roads are mediocre at best; electric service can be problematic; and the water supply is tainted.  Little is done to support the people of this country of almost 60 million.  Many of the poor have come to the Yangon region looking for work which is not there and most of these have no safety net to fall back on.  Medical care is reserved for the wealthy because there is no health insurance.  In fact, Han continued, there is no insurance of any kind in the country – no health, auto, life or property insurance.  Myanmar, the former Burma, is a third world country by any definition.

We started at the Shwe Dagon [“City of Gold”] temple.  This is supposed to be the best known and holiest of the Buddhist shrines in the country.  It is open to everyone, of course, but foreigners must pay $9US to enter.  Once we had paid our entry fee, we were directed by Han to remove our shoes and socks.  Most of us had read about this in the ship’s shore excursion booklet, but some people missed the message.  Misa, who was dressed in a mid-thigh clinging dress started to reach under her dress to remove her pantyhose while in the lobby but Jane pointed her to the ladies’ room.  Disaster averted.  Han put all of our shoes in a basket so he could reclaim them later.

Now barefoot, we were herded into an elevator to ascend to the level of the shrine.  Had it been indoors or under cover, our shoeless condition would have been fine, but we went through an overhead passage from the elevator to the shrine and found ourselves in bright sunshine.  The captain had warned us that temperatures might reach 101 today, so we were lucky in visiting here before it became too hot.  Hot is relative here.  We learned quickly not to step on the darker tiles on the floor of the shrine; they were noticeably hotter than the white ones which reflected some of the light and heat.

We were in Disneyland without the rides.  Everywhere we looked we saw shrines, stupas and people.  In the center was the Pagoda itself.  By design, it was just a very large stupa, a bell-shaped construction that vaguely resembles a Dairy Queen ice cream cone.  The Burmese call a stupa which contains an artifact of the Buddha himself a pagoda.  This is not to be confused with the 7-storey pagodas of Japan or, for that matter, of Malaysia.  The Pagoda at Shwe Dagon holds eleven hairs from the Buddha’s head. [In Penang, the Burmese Temple alleged to have a piece of bone.  On the other hand, Buddha was supposed to have self-immolated, but no one has explained how these relics survived the cremation.]

The shrines which faced us held a myriad of Buddha’s no two of which were quite alike.  The individual shrines surrounding the Pagoda represented different regions of the country and reflected their origins, apparently, in their content and architecture.  Most were rather boxy structures with elaborate facades although there were several which more closely resembled the appearance of Japanese pagodas.  The interiors were simple, for the most part, containing golden Buddhas and other statues on display.  Most had worshippers in them praying; seeking relief from the sun and heat; or sleeping.

The site of all these shrines was dazzling because most were gold in color if not covered in gold itself.  The Pagoda was covered in gold leaf.  It is cleaned every five years and has new gold added as necessary.  Altogether, it has more than 3000 kilograms of gold leaf, over 6500 pounds.  It was under wraps today, parts of it covered in what looked like burlap squares.  Had it not been covered, it would have been blinding in its glory.

Han led our rag-tag group through much of the complex.  We stopped at the Wednesday Corner to pour water on a Buddha and his elephant, a total of nine dips-and-pours.  [There were “corners” for the other days of the week as well.  In fact, our meeting point at the end of our free time was the Tuesday Corner.]  He explained the significance of many of the shrines we passed and told us the story of a bell which was onround display.  D missed most of these explanations because he was riding herd on the group and “encouraging” Harry and Misa, among others, to stop taking photos and keep up with the group.

After 20 minutes of free time, we reassembled as instructed.  Harry had stayed with Han while the rest of us wandered around.  We retraced our steps through the passageway and down in the elevators.  Still shoeless, we all took a quick look around the inevitable gift shop; D bought a box from Mandalay for MA’s collection.  Out of the gift shop, we reclaimed our shoes.  Our feet were amazingly clean upon inspection, but Han gave us wash-and-dry cloths to wipe away what dirt there was.

Today was another adventure in ecumenism because we drove from the Shwe Dagon Pagoda to the local synagogue, Musmeah Jeshua.  On a crowded commercial street, surrounded by vendors and shops, it was an oasis of calm and simplicity.  The façade looked Colonial with blue tiles over the entry gate and the name in raised blue letters on a white background.

The inside was also simple yet elegant.  Although the congregation is small –there are only 20 Jews left in Yangon – the building is well-cared for.  Now a Reform congregation, its roots are Orthodox and there is a balcony overlooking the sanctuary where the women would have prayed when Musmeah Jeshua was built in 1854, ten years after the British arrived.  The original wooden building burned down and was replaced by the current one in 1896 following three years of construction.

Where once there were 23 torahs in the walk-in ark, only two remain, encased in hinged silver covers.  The main floor sanctuary was built in the “old” style with the bima [the pulpit] raised in the center of the room.  We were met by the president of the congregation who appeared to be “native” to Yangon rather than looking European.  His English seemed limited, but he did say that he has a son who lives in the US.  On the way out of the synagogue, Harry and D placed donations in the pushke, the collection box.

We made a brief stop at the center of town to take photos of the Sule Pagoda, City Hall and the Independence Monument.  The Sule Pagoda is not as large as the one at Shwe Dagon, but it is literally the center of town.  When Yangon/Rangoon was laid out by the British, the Pagoda was used as Point Zero, the point from which everything was measured [There is a similar point in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris].  This Pagoda is allegedly 2200 years old.

Across the street in one direction is City Hall, a prime example of British Colonial architecture.  On the opposite side is the Independence Monument, a plinth of marble reminiscent of the Washington Monument in DC but on a much smaller scale.  In the open area between the monument and the government building were portable barbed-wire barricades left available to isolate protesters.  According to Han, protests of all sizes are frequent in Yangon.

Continuing through the Colonial section of the city, we drove to The Strand Hotel.  More than 100 years old and Yangon’s most expensive at a starting price of $450 per night [and up], it has the genteel air of a gentleman’s club in Nineteenth Century London, elegant and understated.  Doormen ushered us into the air-conditioned  lobby with its comfortable seating areas.  Adjacent was a small bar and more small-group sitting areas [and free wi-fi].  We walked into the dining room, the café and the shops [where D found the same box he had bought earlier at Shwe Dagon for 20% more].  We spent only 10 – 15 minutes here, more than enough time.

Lunch time was nigh, so Han had the driver take us to what he said was one of his favorite places to take tourists.  It had no name that we could discern and was a cross between a sit-down restaurant and street food.  Because of the intestinal problems running amok on the ship, we explained that we had to be careful in what and where we ate.  Han assured us that the food here was perfectly safe for tourists. 

Before we entered the restaurant proper, we had to pass street food hawkers who were cooking and selling their wares.  There were several side by side with plastic chairs at picnic tables for customers to use.  It looked a lot like the place where we ate in Kuala Lumpur, the possible source of MA’s distress.

Inside was a bit cooler but not much.  Ceiling fans provided respite from the heat and the crowd.  We thought we would have to eat wherever we could find seating and started to scout for tables, but Han convinced someone to create a table for eight and we settled in right in front of the food display.  We saw no menus until we were ready to leave but stood with Han in front of the steam table and told him what we wanted after he explained the various selections.

Once we had told him what we wanted, he told the staff and, very soon, food started to appear.  First was a soup made from lentils.  Although it was a bit thin, it was flavorful and D discovered that it was improved by the addition of rice from the big serving dishes which had been placed on the table.  Waiters had also placed dishes of raw vegetables, mostly greens, on the table but we warned each other not to eat them.  Han was a bit surprised and ate some himself.  His immune system may tolerate a little local dirt, but we were not going to test the gods.

Han suggested that D try the prawns and he did not regret it.  They had a tasty but mild sauce on them which went well with the steamed rice.  Others had chicken or vegetables dishes.  When we told Han that we would not eat the raw veggies, he had someone bring us dishes of cooked chayote greens which everyone enjoyed.  Well, almost everyone – Bill ate nothing because he does not trust the food in foreign countries unless it is served in a “real” restaurant.  It was his loss.  When dessert arrived, we were told that it was tapioca although it appeared to be just sweet syrup.  Again, D put some rice in it to give it some texture and then ate it.  Green tea followed along with the bill, approximately $10 per couple.

Our tour was almost over, but we still had two more stops to make.  First we went to the Bogyoke Aung San Market.  Once upon a time, it was the Scott Market, but times have changed and the old names are coming back.  The market is home to hundreds of vendors both in the main building itself and on the extensions which are on unpaved dirt paths extending from the aisles of the market.  The classy merchants are indoors with fluorescent lights and fans; the “people’s merchants” are on the fringes. 

Most of the stalls contained displays of gems and jewelry or textiles.  There were also some crafts available, but these stalls numbered far fewer than either of the others, and there were no stalls selling produce or proteins.  Han walked us into the market and told us we could have 30 minutes to shop and gawk.  Although there had been some grumbling among the ranks about stopping at the market at all, everyone bought something.  D picked up another mask [number three so far] after a bit of haggling.  The vendor wanted to raise the price when a small tear was found on the bill D had given her, but he simply took it back and started out of the shop.  The young girl quickly retreated from her position and the sale was completed. 

The highlight of the visit, however, was the March of the Burmese Children.  D could hear singing as he wandered through the market but was not able to identify its source.  At the far end of the market opposite where we had entered, he found a parade of little girls all dressed as Buddhist nuns.  The nuns’ robes differ from the monks’ and novices’ only in color; they are pink.  Like their male counterparts, their heads are shaved and they undergo religious training paid for by their parents.  For many, this training takes place when they are children.

Han told us that he had been a novice monk at the insistence of his parents.  Novices are monks-in-training under the age of 20.  The job of monk is measured primarily in months, not years, and novices, whether male or female, are under no obligation to continue as monks or nuns.  Han said he lasted 11 days before he went home.  Monks and nuns may not marry while “on the job” but may be married.  Married monks/nuns must stay away from their spouses until they turn in their robes.  Several people on the bus were ready to volunteer their spouses.

The March of the Burmese Children wound its way through the Bogyoke Aung San Market, each little girl holding a cup to accept offerings.  Their purpose for being in the market today was to raise funds.  Based on the observations of another tour member, they did quite well.  The Burmese people are deeply religious and would find it hard not to contribute.

Everyone was at the appointed spot on time and we started for the van.  We were slowed down some when Misa stopped to give a dollar bill to a beggar who was holding a small child.  She fumbled in her purse and ignored D’s strong suggestion not to do it.  As soon as she had given the dollar, she was approached by others who knew a soft touch when they saw it.  This time, though, she followed D’s lead and joined the group at the the van.  The beggar followed her and we had to climb in and shut the door before she gave up.

Last but far from least on the itinerary was Chauk Het Gyi Reclining Buddha.  Lying on his right side, as all reclining Buddhas do, this one measured 72 meters from the top of his head to bottom of his large, flat feet [about 220 feet].  Buddha’s feet are unique and consistent from culture to culture:  they are perfectly flat with no arch and the toes are perfectly straight.  On the bottoms of his feet are 108[?] symbols relating to the religion but which looked like the tread on a tennis shoe to the uninitiated. 

The particular Buddha is the fourth longest in Myanmar and is so big [How big is he?] that the building surrounding him has been reinforced both vertically and horizontally.  With open steel girders going in both directions, but none over the Buddha himself, the place looked like a train station and Buddha was the train.  We spent about 20 minutes here admiring the sheer size of the statue and looking at some of the accompanying displays, but we were tired and ready before our time was up.  As with all Burmese Buddhist temples, we had removed our shoes and socks before entering, so we cleaned our feet, put on our shoes and started home.

MA had spent a quiet day on an almost-deserted ship and was rested and feeling fine.  After a dose of Cipro and some OTC medication, she had had no relapses, so we rushed to Pub Trivia as soon as D reached the cabin.  Playing as a team of two, we placed second or last depending on one’s point of view.

After dinner [nothing spicy] we went to see the visiting folkloric dance presentation with Ginger and then retired for the night. 

TOMORROW – Another sea day in port

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