amusement park, and water park as I write. There is also an incredible mix of old and new. Huge centuries-old colonial buildings line some streets next to even older shops and homes. The streets are filled with buses, cars, bikes, motorbikes and dogs. There are traffic lights occasionally, but mostly we took our chances. I am told we are fortunate to be here during the “shoulder season” between the wet and dry seasons, when it is neither too hot nor too cold. It’s been in the 90’s (F) every day so I definitely will not be visiting in the hot season.
respectful in our observing and picture-taking, and were able to read about the dynasties who contributed items over the centuries - at the Shwedagon pagoda alone, there are 18 Buddha’s, a showroom, museum, and dozens of culturally significant trees, images, statues, ponds, prayer halls, and bells.
Daily Life In contrast to the trash and traffic, Yangon offers many beautiful parks, gardens, and lakes, as well as a zoo and soccer stadiums. I especially enjoyed walking through these and neighborhoods, seeing how the locals live and pass the time. Private schools and universities next to public schools and trade colleges. Middle class homes on cobblestone streets close to dirt soccer fields and dirt playgrounds. A consistent theme: smiles.
trading base for early 17th century Portuguese. A trishaw bicycle took us around town, where many local children ran out to wave, then to the local market where villagers shop for their daily meals. They may have smart phones and Nike sneakers, but they still maintain many traditions. Given the hot weather, it wasn’t surprising to see most women still wear long cotton skirts while the men wear longyi’s, a “manly” version of the same. Fun fact: I learned that if a man with a longyi is not adequately covered (with nothing underneath – remember it’s 100F), others may say to him “excuse me, sir, I see your department store is open on the weekends”.
Education We visited the Su Htoo Pan Monastic School, a small school run by monks that provides basic education and traditional Buddhist teachings for 200 students from 5 to 13 years old. The school is a residential facility for many students whose families cannot care for them, and it was fun seeing their energy and manners as they prepared for lunch, ate, and played together.
or fried pastry with a savory filling), and some kind of eggplant dish that everyone liked; I’ll have to look that up sometime. Another popular treat are the tea houses on every block where you can drink a type of chai tea sweetened with condensed milk. So far, so good with no food poisoning.
As we left Myanmar, I had many new ideas and discoveries, which will be in my mind as I keep up with current events and the progress of the democracy. I asked a local young man what he would like Americans to know about Myanmar today. He said they really appreciated President Obama’s visits in 2012 and 2016, and hope for a good relationship with the U.S.
Next stop: India
“It’s a very powerful Eureka! moment when you’re traveling: to realize that people don’t have the American dream. They’ve got their own dream. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.” - Rick Steves
If there is a country with big dreams, it is Myanmar.
Colonized by the British in the 1800’s, Burma fought for its independence, finally granted in 1947. In the U.S., we often think of colonialization as a problem that ended in 1776, but it continues in many parts of the world. It’s a challenge, then, to establish a stable government, and Burma was no exception. Despite becoming a democratic-socialist state, a military junta later took over from the 1960’s until 2011. That’s when the country changed its name to Myanmar, because the Burmese are only 1 ethnic group, and there are actually 135! Can we imagine trying to be a democratic society with dozens of languages and cultures? They elected a democratic government in 2015 but there is still so much conflict that we westerners often only hear about that – the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas and brutal treatment of minorities.
We spent many hours learning about and reflecting on the situation, and recognize that visiting the country does not indicate support of the turmoil in any way. Our Semester at Sea voyage feels far removed from that; we docked close to Yangon and had the opportunity to meet locals, learn about their many traditions, and experience the other side of Myanmar.
I’m late in posting this blog because I somehow thought it was a good idea to give all of my midterms in a 2-day period: 90 papers, 360 essay questions. Plus each student’s reflection of the port. It’s been a treat reading them, but now on to blogging.
After the cold weather we experienced in Japan and China, we were happy to arrive in tropical southern Vietnam. We sailed into the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) port among a variety of small fishing boats, all out to capture their dinner or market supplies. And what a surprise HCMC was – a big modern city with tall office buildings and banks, new malls, nice restaurants, and their own Time Square. Fanning out from there (which is the area they still call Saigon), the city becomes block after block of small shops and markets that seem to have been there for centuries. For a communist state, it sure has a huge number of mom and pop stores, selling everything on the sidewalk next to kindergarten-size tables and chairs to pause for a snack or drink. Diners and shoppers share the sidewalk with mopeds and nobody bats an eye. In a city of 7 million residents, we were told there are 7 million of these scooters. Crossing the street is an adventure, as the mopeds don’t stop, even at red lights. I found myself helping other international travelers cross the street, pretending to be confident and figuring there was safety in numbers.
I prepared for this port as always, by reading everything I could get my hands on and attending ship lectures, with the addition of watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary. Vietnam has a storied history, and there are many sites to visit to reflect on the war with the U.S.: The War Crimes museum, the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong, and the Reunification Palace. Other HCMC highlights included the Central Post Office (famous French architecture from colonial times), Dong Khoi Street, the Ben Thanh market, Cho Lon, and the Thien Hau temple. Outside the city, we were able to see proof that the nation is 45% forest; big, beautiful tropical trees filled the countryside, and getting there was a treat as we passed water buffalo, little villages, and rice paddies.
Now, on to the FOOD. Many people know that Vietnam is famous for pho, a delicious broth with chicken (or meat), seafood, vegetables, and lime. The country is also famous for its coffee, which has a nutty, almost chocolate taste. Their famous drink, Vietnamese coffee, is served with ice and condensed milk, a dessert in a cup! With just a week in country, I was able to enjoy not only pho and Vietnamese coffee but also com tam (rice with various spices), banh mi, spring rolls, elephant ear fish and so much other seafood I can’t list it all. There was also plenty of coconut water, mangoes, passion fruit, and dragon fruit. And lots and lots of fermented foods, oh so good for the gut - vegetables, fruit and fish.
The outdoor markets were impressively clean, with what seemed like miles of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood. When I say fresh, I mean there are rows of fish tanks, live frogs, and whole animal carcasses, ready to be taken home to eat that same day. Which brings me to our next culinary experience…
I led a cooking challenge field trip in which 25 of us SASers met with a chef from the Viet Nam Cookery Center. Having taught dozens of cooking classes in my life, I was happy to be a participant and couldn’t wait to see what she would have us do. 1st, we went to the open-air market, split into teams, and began a market race to buy produce we would need to make lunch. Off to her cooking center, where she demonstrated spring rolls, Vietnamese shrimp crepes, lotus stem salad, and 2 dipping sauces. Each team had to then go to their cooking station and recreate the dishes in an hour. The ingredients were authentic and fresh, and the results were incredible. We all came away with recipes and skills to cook Vietnamese food at home.
Lastly, and my favorite activity of this port, we left the inner city and visited a family in the Thu Duc neighborhood: a grandmother, her son and daughter-in-law, and their 3-year old son. The 3 generations live together as is custom, and the grandmother’s other children came to visit with us as well. Not only did they welcome us into their home but also taught us traditional cooking, and together we created a delicious Vietnamese dinner. Lots of conversation followed over tea and fruit; they shared their insights on traditions, education, religion, careers, and families, and I felt like I knew more about daily life. We also toasted the new Year of the Dog with them!
I asked the young parents what they would like my friends and family in the U.S. to know about them. They said Vietnam might not be the cleanest or fanciest country in the world, but it has the nicest people :)
Next stop: Myanmar
I greeted China with a mix of skepticism and enthusiasm. Growing up intrigued by, yet apprehensive about, China, I didn’t know if I’d see a bleak picture of communistic oppression or a thriving society of high achieving students and colorful celebrations. Ultimately, I came away with a sense that the Chinese are much like me: individuals each with their own love of family, value of friends, goals for success, appreciation for food, and efforts to juggle work, play, and the commute or transition between the two. I can’t possibly summarize all I have learned about its politics, economy, or environmental challenges, so I’ll focus on my little glimpse into their world.
Shanghai was our first stop, a huge city of 24 million people. To put that into context, that is roughly 3 times the size of Chicago. Since food is the most important reason to explore a new city, I will tell you that I enjoyed sesame rice balls, rice-wrapped seaweed, spicy noodles with raisins, shrimp dumplings, spring rolls, shrimp-fried rice, and spicy chicken (served whole with skin and bones). My fellow travelers ate a variety of pork dishes (they eat more pork than beef or chicken in China) – pork dumplings, buns, balls, and rice dishes. Shanghai is also home to the world’s largest Starbucks. Just saying.
provides us with healthcare, housing, and pensions; we are growing and have more information and more freedom than before. We are happy.”
and Traditional Chinese Medicine. It was incredible and the students were able to relate it back to my class lectures. :)
Next, grocery shopping with the locals. That means 3 square blocks of outdoor market: one part covered, dusty and pungent, with animals and seafood, every body part available for purchase; the other part uncovered, dusty and aromatic, with more colors and shapes of fruits and vegetables than most of us knew existed.
Then lunch at a popular Dim Sum restaurant, with huge round tables that sat 10 people but more importantly had a 3-feet diameter lazy susan in the middle heaped with dumplings with every kind of filling – seafood, vegetables, meat. Also several soy dishes – grilled soy cakes, fermented tofu, soy pudding, all better than they sound and certainly better for you than the processed soy protein additives in the US. And Coke. That’s been a consistent theme throughout China – Coke served everywhere with every meal. :(