I WAS WRONG, AGAIN, OF COURSE. I thought my most-recent adventure/ extravaganza to the Maldives and the coast of Kerala would be my last journey in which I would not need to consider the cost of things: like $42 hamburgers or houseboat rentals. Turns out, I will soon be embarking on a trip to Burma (OK, Myanmar), Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. Ahem…you may have noticed my kinky little widget to the right displaying a countdown of days till departure.
The other day a coworker asked how much I spent on my most recent trip to the Maldives and Kerala. He gaped in disbelief when I told him I had no idea. I have a weirdness about money–I don’t like it. I like what you can do with it; I don’t like what you can’t do without it. But I don’t like dealing with it or handling it or even using it. I don’t enjoy shopping, even for things I want or need. It’s like this: I eat a lot of avocados. They’re expensive where I now live where everything is shipped in from somewhere else half the world away. But I never look at the price per kilo, never look at the receipt. I don’t want the knowledge of how much they cost to ruin my love for avocados. Same with travel, maybe.
This trip will entail six international air flights and four countries—five, if you count the layover in Bangkok. A private guide and driver in Bhutan—that’s the only way you can visit the country—you have to be escorted everywhere, and there are many places you will not be allowed to visit (I’m pretty sure those are the very places I’d truly love to see). A steamer up the Irrawady River, maybe. A balloon ride over Bagan in Burma, maybe. A night at the discos in Bangladesh (say what?). Lord knows how many hotels (or where). Lord knows how many taxis. Boookooo dinero, we might imagine. I’m not rich by any standard, but I have a job, money coming in when I return. I make enough to eat avocados and fly to Bhutan. However, I’m fairly sure this will be my last adventure where I’m not counting pennies. Or Bhat. Or rupees. Or rubles. Or kyat.
However, for me, this is the insane part of this trip: I will be traveling through these four countries in a time frame of just over two weeks. TWO, that’s 2. Weeks! Imagine a frazzled Badfish wadding a bunch of thinning gray hair in both fists, and pulling. This is not the way I usually travel. For most of my travels, I would fly somewhere, or wash up on the shore, and simply rent a bungalow in Bali or a Batak tribal house on the shoreline of Lake Toba on Sumatra and stay right there for four months.
I like traveling—or rather, not traveling—this way for a number of reasons. One, you get to know a place and the people much more intimately than when you’re only there a week or two, or a day or two. You get to know the names of locals, and sons and daughters, and their problems, and joys; or you discover they make their own honey from coconut palms, and they offer you some for the rice-flour pancakes they made you; they spin their own rope from coconut husks; they spin their own yarn and weave sarongs from it, and they try to teach you how to play a two-foot-long bamboo flute. Two, you do not have to traumatize yourself daily with timetables, and flight itineraries, and bus schedules, and all the travail that comes with all that moving about, and holding your pee on long bus rides with chickens clucking under your seat. And three, you can actually settle in to a routine. I’m ambivalent about this last one: because it may seem disappointing to some people—a badfish settling in to routine. And also, the rogue in me (or once in me…always out of his element), might scoff at a word like “routine.”
But the other side of going rogue is this: a routine helps you feel comfortable no matter where you are. And sure, what they say about expanding yourself by moving out of your comfort zone may be true, and at some point, may transform your life. But sometimes, you just want to sit your fine ass down right there in your comfy rocker smack dab in the middle of that walled-in comfort zone with no thoughts what so ever of expanding that fine ass. And eat Haagen Dazs from the carton: they don’t call it comfort food for nothing.
Caveat: Type A Personality people please skip this next paragraph:
As we all know: we are who we are, or maybe, who we have become. And there will be none of that “routine” stuff happening on this trip. This trip, I fly first into Rangoon (now Yangon—the Colonial British apparently had a decidedly discernible knack for misunderstanding names of cities they conquered, eh?). From Rangoon, I’m flying by the seat of my pants as of this moment, with no plan. I’d like to steam up the Irrawaddy and photograph cool stuff (as Britney Spears might say). And I’d like to bounce (somehow?) over to Lake Inle to see the fishermen casting fishing nets while standing up and paddling the oar with one leg and foot (google it). Somehow, I would like to travel on Kipling’s “road to Mandalay” (thankfully they haven’t changed its name). I have looked at a map (in a failed attempt to emulate travelers who plan well). However, I have made no plans for the how or when of anything. No plan at all. As of today, I have no hotel in Dhaka. I have no hotel in Katmandu. I have no clue how to get from point A to point B in Burma—rickshaw, train, bus, taxi, and just where to catch a tramp steamer upriver. I’m not afraid to travel like this, to “discover” what the road might manifest out of thin air in front of you after you take the first step. Perhaps, I’m at my best when traveling this way: it feels, well, almost liberating. Many of my travels have been like this, with no plan of even where I’d go next, let alone how, sometimes with no Lonely Planet guidebook along. Perhaps, some would say, my whole life has been lived like this? (if you are a Type A and still reading this—I did warn you—quit that twitching dammit).
But that kind of travel needs time. And now maybe I’m thinking that with so little time to travel, I might not want to miss something because I didn’t plan anything. I do have a hotel for the first couple nights in Rangoon (OK, Yangon), with a view of the Schwedagon Temple—and listen, that’s not next to nothing, you realize. That’s like a major coup for a non-planner. A boutique hotel (a suite, even) with a view of Schwedagon—no, it wasn’t cheap, but not expensive either. “Middle-Path Badfish” is what they call me. No, I guess they don’t.
After Myanmar, I fly into Dhaka, Bangladesh. You can only fly into Bhutan on a Bhutan national airline, no foreign carriers are allowed to fly into Bhutan. However, you can’t get a Bhutan flight from Myanmar, but they do fly into Bangladesh. So fine, I get to visit Bangladesh. But wait, is that safe? I was warned to get a visa before departure because they keep changing their rule without warning about needing a visa before arrival or being able to get one “on arrival” at the airport. I have not applied for a Bangladesh visa yet. Apparently, “Follows-Good-Advice Badfish” is another name they don’t call me.
In Bhutan, I’ll be escorted the whole time by my guide and driver. I usually dislike (read: abhor) tours. On my Nile cruise a number of years ago, the cruise included a tour guide for each of the ancient sites we visited. At our first stop, Luxor Temple, I listened to Hamad our guide, for about four and a half minutes before I developed a wicked case of heeby jeebies and beelined it to the first pillar of atavistic stone I could photograph. After that, I left the tour as soon as we left the boat and hit the sand, never heard another word of Hamad’s histories. Others in the group, however, thought Hamad was marvelous and tipped him well. I ended up over tipping him, too—it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
As much as I like traveling hard and then relaxing in a Starbucks in some place like Djibouti or Timbuktu for a little respite from the travails of travel—the dirt, the grime, the sweat, the noise, the weirdness, the food that looks like cockroaches on a stick, the food that is cockroaches on a stick, the persistent possibility of diarrhea, the oh-so-foreignness of everything— going with a guide and driver in Bhutan seems like the right way to go (even though it is the only way to go). I’m happy to let Bhutan remain as original, as ancient, as un-Western, and pure and pristine as possible. Like they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If I were going to advise Cuba on developing their tourism scheme, I would advise them to leave things just as they are (at least until I got there to see it as it is). I would love to drive a tricked-out, cherry 56 Chevy Bel Air coupé with a Hurst floor shifter, again, before they sell them all off to ex-hippy-yuppy-portfolio-building Boomers with pony tails living in Malibu with trophy wives and Harleys.
Another problem with flying in and out of Bhutan is this: the Bhutan national flights don’t fly to all their destinations every day. You can only fly out to certain cities on certain days. So, I need to fly to either Katmandu or Bangkok in order to catch another Etihad return flight home. Flying to Katmandu is going in the direction of home. Flying into Bangkok is going backward, way south, and then flying all that way forward again. So I am forced to stop over in Katmandu for two days to allow flights to hook up with the cosmic order of things. I know, I know…life is hard. Everyone wears their own breed of albatross.
You can find other entries to DP Photo Challenge here: One Love
You can find other entries in DP Daily Prompt here: Flow