Sunday, January 26, 2014


Last week I finally turned 70.  Not that I've been anxiously awaiting this day, because I haven't.  I've been dreading it for the last twelve months when I knew it was inevitable.  It seems everyone I know who graduated in my high school class of 1961 was doing it.  But now that it's here, there's not much I can do but marvel in the fact that at the age of 70, I can still do the same things I did at 69.

Biker Chick at Seventy

The date was January 15th during our trip to Burma, while staying at a fabulous resort on the Ngapali coast along with twelve friends.  I had no idea, of course, but Bruce threw me a surprise party and even brought balloons and party decorations all the way from California.  He hid them in an extra bag full of bubble wrap that we carry, which enables us to bring home the ethnic artifacts we hope to buy.  Since we often travel in January, I'm used to celebrating somewhere exotic.  Over the years I've blown out candles on a birthday cake in Vietnam, Ethiopia, Argentina, Mali, Cuba, Belize, and India.   But I've never had a party per se.  Just the cake.

Bruce sketched out his idea for the surprise party and how it would play out in emails he wrote to our friends before we left.  He contacted the resort, and together they made plans for the party to be held in a special place with a lot of ambience.  Everything was in place. He just had to get me there so it would be a surprise.  To be honest, I did expect a cake, so when I heard Bruce whisper the word "surprise" to one of the resort's staff, I pretended not to hear  since I assumed he was arranging for the cake. 

That evening we planned to join our friends at the outdoor bar, so we could watch the sunset and have drinks together before going to dinner.  Because I am such a stickler for being prompt, I was impatient with Bruce who was futzing around and taking longer than usual to get ready.  I'd already seen two of our friends walk by our bungalow, so I was anxious to get going.  Finally Bruce said he was ready, so together we walked a short way down to the outdoor bar.  I was surprised not to see our friends sitting in the same spot they had the previous night, but I wasn't suspicious, even though I saw a string of balloons and a birthday sign.  What a dork I am.  I thought it might be decorations for someone else's party. 

Sandoway Resort, Ngapali Beach, Myanmar (Burma)

As I approached the entrance to the inside section of the bar, there were our twelve friends, holding up glasses of bubbly Prosecco, and singing Happy Birthday.  Bruce had even borrowed the resort's piano player for the opening ceremonies.  "Drinks are on me, there are a lot of hors d'ouevres," Bruce shouted to our friends.   I was shocked, stunned, and speechless.  Yes, believe it or not, I was truly speechless.  After about 30 minutes of drinking bubbly, we  sat down at a long table outside that had been arranged by Bruce and beautifully decorated by all of our friends.  That's when the shit hit the fan.  No one held back.  One by one and going around the table, my friends mercilessly roasted me black and teased me even some more. Do I really talk that much?  Is it true that I constantly drop the name of Podunk U?   It was a great party and a fun way to turn 70.

Although many of my very funny friends went to great lengths to make this a special birthday for me, the funniest person roasting me that evening was my husband, Bruce.    He read out loud what he described as a draft of a blog post that I had just written about the Burma trip, but it was a spoof written by him   Although some of it will be lost on people who were not traveling with us and those don't know me personally, it should resonate with those who have followed my blog.   Here goes ---- 

Biker Chick Gone Seventy

It's early January, and after recovering from a New Year's drunken stupa -- I mean stupor, I find myself in
Burma.  Why Burma, you might ask?  The answer goes back to my childhood.  When I was a kid growing up in rural New Hampshire, I used to sit in the back of my parents' donkey cart as they went to the local market in East Hicksville.  Now the main road to East Hicksville was lined with a series of little 6 X 15 inch signs that said "Burma Shave."  And so ever since the age of seven, I knew I was destined to go to Burma some day.  My frequent travel companion, Carla, arranged this journey as an all-expense paid trip in honor of my 70th birthday.  A wonderful gesture to be sure, but I told her that I didn't want to make the trip without Bruce.  She eventually agreed, but I had to promise to keep a lid on his often obnoxious behavior.  I never know when he might get into a shouting match with someone over something trivial.  So far, Bruce has behaved well, but we had a close call when we were at an antique shop in Bagan and Carla and Gary bought a beautiful piece that Bruce had his eye on.  I thought he was going to become unglued, but I managed to push him out the door, where he kicked around in the dirt until he calmed down.  Luckily nobody else noticed this.  One time in Bhutan Bruce had a hissy fit when all I did was lock the door to our room when I left for dinner.  Oh well, enough about Bruce.

There are 12 other people in our group.  We've traveled with most of them before.  Most of them listen to me when I talk --- the rest are B-O-R-I-N-G!

Since some time in the 1970s, this country has been called Myanmar.  Apparently the name change was never recognized by the U.S. Government.  I have a friend in the State Department who told me that the shaving cream lobby is quite powerful.  At a Department of Agriculture hearing in 1981, there was testimony that it would cost several billion dollars to alter signs all across rural American to read Myanmar Shave.

Scattered about the Bagan area are thousands of beautiful Buddhist temples and stupas.  These monuments are best seen at sunrise in a hot air balloon.  It was very expensive, but we took the balloon ride.  Other than in an airplane, I haven't been so high since my pot smoking days with Billy Randall back in high school.  We frequently would shack up in a motel room.  Actually, it was my room, since I lived at my parents' motel -- ah, but I seem to be digressing.

Back to Burma.  One morning we visited a couple of schools, and I was so embarrassed.  At the primary school our entire group sang 3 verses of "Old McDonald" in a classroom full of dumbfounded Burmese kids.  All they wanted to do was translate "I have an apple" into the Burmese language in their workbooks, only to be interrupted by a bunch of camera-wielding adults spouting animal sounds.  Then at the high school came an even more  bizarre event.  One of the couples in our group had schlepped a huge pile of ugly green soccer uniforms all the way from California to give to school kids.  So a couple of confused students were summoned to the principal's office and told to hold out their arms.  Then as the soccer shirts and shorts were piled into their outstretched arms in front of a camera paparazzi, I just know that the stone-faced kids were thinking, "What the fuck?"

Buddhism is heavy duty here in Burma.  It seems to be a different kind of Buddhism than we saw in Bhutan.  But, like we saw in Laos, long lines of monks walk the streets in the early mooring holding food bowls and looking for potential donors.  What a contrast from my fund-raising days at Podunk U.  At Podunk U we would give potential donors bowls already filled with food.  They would eat it and then give us money.

When I was in fundraising, I once arranged for a dinner event at George Clooney's house -- and believe me, the guests did not show up in bare feet and burgundy robes holding empty bowls.  Incidentally, a funny thing happened that evening.   Before the event,  I went over to the Clooney house for some final preparations, and I guess the butler was off duty.  Would you believe that George Clooney himself answered the doorbell in his underwear.

OK, but here I am digressing again.  Yes, back to Burma.

The hawking of trinkets, postcards and other souvenirs is endemic at all important tourist sites.  At many places we were approached by a swarm of sellers, most of them children.  They were a nuisance, but I could identify with the effort to earn money at an early age, selling stuff that nobody wanted.  One year while still a teenager, I got a job as a sales person at Lord and Taylor.  I was in the glove department -- now just imagine trying to sell gloves in July.  But, you know what?  One day I sold a pair to a movie actor -- Tony Perkins.  When I told him that I had the same last name, he smiled and said nothing.  This still bothers me to this day since most people love talking to me.

Oh, shit, I'm digressing again.  This blog post is supposed to be about Burma.  But as I sit here thinking about how best to describe the incredible scenery and the warm and welcoming  Burmese people, it occurs to me that mere words are inadequate.  So I'm going to stop trying.

But don't think for a minute that I'm at a total loss for words.  No sireee.  I've got 70 years worth of tales to tell -- so stay tuned as life's adventure continues...........

Red Faced at Seventy

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


I felt a little guilty as I walked through the small village that sits on the sandy bank of the Irrawaddy River outside of Bagan. This could be one of the most down and out places I've seen in all of the countries I've visited in Asia. Lining the side of the road were wooden shacks with dirt floors and partially collapsed thatched roofs. Trash and metal debris littered the crowded narrow street. Young men lounged lazily in plastic chairs, some chewing betel nut and smoking cheroot, which is a type of Burmese cigar. Young girls carried buckets of water that hung from a wooden pole and weighed as much as they did. An acrid stench of food and smoke filled the air as women cooked over open wood fires. Underfed dogs stretched themselves out on the sand and warmed their flea-ridden bodies in the morning sun. Burmese porters carried our heavy luggage on the top of their heads, while fourteen, freshly showered and well-dressed Americans walked toward the luxury river boat that was awaiting our arrival.

As we walked up the narrow wooden gang plank, we were greeted by a Burmese crew of stewards dressed in starched white shirts and others wearing the typical long Burmese skirt called a longyi. Some passed out cold hand towels, and others offered us a refreshing fruit drink. A lovely looking man smiled as he called out our name, gave us our key, and pointed in the direction of our room. Another steward handed us a pair of white slippers to wear on the boat, and asked us to remove our dusty shoes, which someone painstakingly cleaned every night. We were spending two luxurious nights on the beautiful Paukan river cruise boat (built in 1947) that was taking us from Ancient Bagan to Royal Mandalay, stopping to visit a couple of small villages along the way.

Only 300 people live in Shwedagon Pyi Thar village, and 200 of them are children. There is no electricity, no running water or private enterprise. The village operates as a community, sharing all the proceeds from their crops, with the main one being peanuts. For an hour and a half we toured the small village, smiling, repeating over and over the only three Burmese words we have learned so far. "Hello, how are you, and thank you!" And in English, "May we take your photo?" One of the three retired teachers in our group had no difficulty surrounding herself with children. With a knack I've seen her use on other trips before, she had them giggling, singing, and trying hard to pronounce her name. (I have uploaded a short video of the kids, but I don't know whether there is enough bandwidth here in Burma to transfer it.)

I've probably said this about every Asian country we have been to, but we are amazed at how happy and welcoming the Burmese people seem to be. This is quite extraordinary when you think about how much they have suffered during the last fifty years under an oppressive regime.

On our second day we visited the village of Yandabo, which is famous for its exquisite pottery that is sold throughout the country. Yandabo is also known as the site of the first Burmese-Anglo peace treaty signed in 1826. There are three thousand residents living in this community, and unlike Shwedagon Pyi Thar, each family operates its own business. When we arrived in the morning, most of the children were in school, but a few were on the river bank to greet us. Considering that the Paukan River boat brings tourists to this village twice a week, I am surprised at how friendly, open, and receptive the villagers seem to be. No one objects to our taking photos or boldly peeking into doorways. They laugh at us as we butcher their language.

The adventure continues............

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Sunday, January 5, 2014

MINGALABA - Burma Day Four

Wake up calls before five o'clock in the morning are beginning to be the norm, but it's early in the trip's itinerary, so I can handle it, although I'm still feeling the effects of jet lag. Yesterday our one hour flight to Bagan left Yangon at the god awful hour of 6:00 am, but it meant having a full first day to begin exploring an area that is often referred to as the most wondrous sight in Burma. One could easily spend a week in this magnificent place, but we are happy with the three days we have, especially since we are staying at the five star Aureum Palace Hotel and Resort.

If you have never heard of the ancient Valley of Bagan, I'm sure that you have seen pictures because it is one of the most photographed archeological sights in the world. Spanning 16 square miles of a great open plain, with the Irrawaddy River in the background, more than 2000 ancient temples, pagodas and stupas (built in the 10th and 11th century) dot the beautiful arid countryside. Some compare it to Cambodia's Angkor Wat, but now having seen both, I would say that there are similarities in the building style, but the setting is totally different.

Most of our first day was spent visiting a few of these magnificent brick structures, with beautifully preserved wall paintings, carved motifs, and massive gold leaf statues of Buddha. The most impressive of the temples was Ananda Pahto, built by a king in the 11th century. Inside stood four huge Buddha statues made of teak and covered in shiny gold leaf, each with a different hand position or mudras. Outside children of all ages greeted us with big smiles, trying desperately to sell us postcards, sand paintings, and crude trinkets made of wood and bronze.

While I really enjoyed seeing the three or four unique temples and pagodas we visited, I was really looking forward to the hot air balloon ride that would give us a bird's eye view and a totally different perspective of this immense archeological sight.

At 5:45 am this morning Bruce and I and two others from our group were picked up at the hotel and driven to a giant open field where a large crew of Burmese workers were assembling the gear and setting up the 13 hot air balloons that would be flying at sunrise. What a relief to hear English accents coming from some of the people in charge, since the balloons are flown by a very experienced crew from the U.K, and not an inexperienced crew from Burma.

Richard, our balloon captain, spoke firmly when giving us the important safety instructions on when and how to climb into the balloon's basket, and what to do when landing. "Sit, don't stand, put cameras on the floor, grasp rope handles, and place your back and head firmly against the basket." Getting in and out of the huge basket was tricky for some, but for me it was like getting my leg over a bike seat, except the bike seat, i.e. the basket, was nearly five feet tall.

I thought I would be nervous when the massive propane gas burner heated up the inside of the balloon, but I wasn't. Other balloons were beginning to take off at the same time, and it was a thrill to see, knowing that within minutes I would be airborne too.

To be honest I really don't understand the science of hot air ballooning, but I really didn't care. I was there to experience the thrill of flying and to take photographs of the beautiful sights below. For 45 very fast minutes we cruised at an altitude between 500 to 1000 feet, although I saw a couple of balloons that looked much higher. The skies were not ideal for photos, but I did my best considering limited light, slight mist, and smoky haze. And a relatively new camera that I'm still struggling to understand.

The adventure continues..........

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Thursday, January 2, 2014


The first thing that struck me upon my arrival in Yangon, Burma (also known as Myanmar) were the happy faces. Asians, in general, are always smiling, but perhaps the difference here in Burma is that for the first time in decades, there is hope, freedom, and a drastically improved quality of life and human rights. Darkness and fear prevailed for decades when the country was ruled by a brutally repressive military junta beginning in 1962. The Burmese government initiated brutal crackdowns during the pro-democracy uprisings in 1988 and again in 2007 when thousands of people were either killed or made political prisoners like the beloved pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

A country the size of Texas is nestled between China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India, Burma boasts a population of 56 million. There is a beautiful coastline that borders the Andaman Sea and The Bay of Bengal. There are abundant natural resources like natural gas, timber, rice, oil and precious stones such as rubies, sapphires, jade and pearls, which are exported around the world.

Having missed out on an opportunity to visit Burma in 2008 as an extension of a trip to Bhutan, we quickly jumped on an offer to do this trip with our group of friends. Since the country opened up fully to tourism in 2011, Burma is now considered one of the most exciting and adventurous places to travel. Joint ventures with foreign partners have enabled the tourism infrastructure to expand with five star hotels scattered throughout the country in exotic places like Mandalay, Inle Lake, and the ancient capital of Bagan.

Here in Yangon we are staying in a beautiful hotel. From the third floor, our room looks out onto a small pond surrounded by colorful gardens and lush vegetation, like banyan, jack fruit, and rubber trees. Our room is very large, paneled in dark wood with many amenities, like plush robes, thick towels, plenty of hot water, and our very own internet router, which makes for an extremely fast computer connection. At the same time, our sink drips constantly, our toilet is backed up, and the shower doesn't drain very fast, but so far there is uninterrupted electricity and the air conditioning works.

We arrived very early on Thursday morning, January 2nd, on a flight from Bangkok where we spent New Years Eve with our 12 traveling friends. From the air, Yangon was covered in what looked like a smoky haze, but we weren't sure whether that was from pollution or whether it was morning fog or a light jungle mist. As we drove into town, the culprit was confirmed -- the haze had to be from exhaust and pollution, as the roads and streets were clogged and congested with buses, cars, and trucks. With very few traffic signals at major intersections, pedestrians and people riding bicycles cautiously walked and weaved among the slow moving vehicles, hoping to safely cross to the other side. The sounds and smells took me back to 2007 and my first trip to Southeast Asia ---Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos --- the first adventure with our traveling friends.

After a typical Burmese lunch of lentil soup, prawns in a mild curry sauce and a yummy cooked eggplant that tasted something like mashed potato, we began our walking tour of the colorful and busy streets of Yangon. People greeted us with friendly faces and when we smiled and said MINGALABA, the daily greeting in Burmese, they giggled and said MINGALABA back to us. "Where are you from?" one man shouted. "America," we shouted back. There were more giggles, smiles, and happy faces. They are so glad to see Westerners in their country after so many years of being shut off from the rest of the world.

Eventually, we made our way to one of Yangon's most famous sights -- Shwedagon Pagoda ---with its exquisite gold dome that shimmers In the blazing sun. Perched on a small hill in the city's center, Shwedagon is accessed by an elevator and visitors can enter through four directional gates. The word magnificent doesn't seem adequate to describe this enormous complex with 80 ornate structures, some of which go back 2000 years. The buildings are exquisitely decorated with huge amounts of gold, jade, rubies and diamonds. The main stupa is 322 feet high, and unless you have a very wide angle lens, photographs do not capture the scope or the enormity of this religious complex. Buddhists and religious people from all over the world are here to pray, chant, and just marvel In the spiritual wonder of this