Tis the east. And smazeny is the sun.
No matter what I’m doing or who I’m talking to or how long it’s been since my last meal, there is always a small space in the back of my mind that is reserved for food. Even during moments of passion, inspiration, or the most overwhelming depression; even after a Thanksgiving dinner that leaves my poor body immobile, that little part of me is conniving, planning, counting the minutes, greedily rubbing its greasy paws together in lustful anticipation of the next feeding time.
Some people say that home is where the heart is. I say that home is where the meal is.
I have no problem going out at four in the morning to run to the nearest all-night hot dog stand. I feel no shame when I wait for my nine piece McNuggets with barbecue sauce and honey mustard, large fries, diet coke, and if I can charm the cashier, a complimentary happy meal toy, all to-go, and bring it to my friends’ table in their favorite salad shop. I am a hungry person and if “fat” is a state of mind, then I am grossly obese.
Canoeing the Vltava
As my friends and I neared the bitter end of a three day canoe trip down the Vltava river in the Czech Republic in September, the only thing that kept me going through those final brutal stretches of bone-chilling rapids was the thought of curling up with some tender, juicy, McLovin’.
We beached our canoes at our final destination in Cesky Krumlov, dumped our belongings on the grass, and made a beeline for the snack bar. Briefly, I checked out my reflection in the window. I gasped: I was wasting away! I was emaciated! I had had far too much exercise. With stern determination, I opened the door and resolved to sacrifice the last contents of my wallet to right these unspeakable wrongdoings.
Of course, a meal is not a meal without first drinking enough whiskey to get a little cozy. It’s the tantalizing foreplay to the eruptive climax of that first quivering bite. Once I had had enough whiskey to confirm my belief that I was a fluent Czech speaker, I ordered two helpings of kielbasa as well as two helpings of some curious menu item which my friend claimed was a Czech specialty—Smažený sýr.
Funny, we always find love when we least expect it.
The firm, crunchy exterior of my geometrically perfect square of cheese gave way to a juicy, soul-fulfilling filling, filling every nook of my mouth with awe and raw animal pleasure. I wanted to howl at the moon as it slithered down my esophagus and made its final plunge into my intestinal powerhouse, setting my digestive system into motion like never before. It was an awakening.
The little snack bar that changed my life.
Dazed, I lay in the grass and contemplated, puffing my cigarette. What had just happened? How could I ever eat mozzarella sticks again after this? Would I find smažený sýr again? When? Where? Was this fleeting? Would it be just as good next time?
Some weeks later, I found myself wandering through the maze of passages at the dimly-lit, mechanical bar, “Cross Club.” My stomach was speaking to me and my nose was leading the way. It led me straight to a sign that said “Smažený sýr.” A chill ran down my spine.
Dĕkuji, nose, I whispered.
“Uh, Smashenisky, prosím?” I eagerly asked the cashier.
Without missing a beat, he threw a hunk of cheese into the fryer while my friend laughed at me. “It’s Smažený sýr,” she snarled.
I wanted to punch her, but suddenly my hands were full of something. A sandwich. A SMAZENY-SANDWICH!
A roll stuffed with lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise, ketchup, hot sauce, tartar, and best of all, smažený sýr! I was rabid. My friend glanced down her nose at me as the juices dribbled down my chin.
Before long, I was getting my fix on a daily basis. I ate it wherever I went. Other foods slowly began to disappear from my culinary vocabulary. When people waved restaurant menus in front of my face, I eyed them with disdain before faithfully making my way to Wenceslas Square, where there are over ten Smažený Sýr stands to choose from. I took two hour long night tram detours to get it. I walked countless kilometers out of my way in the wee hours of the morning. I was determined to find the best Smažený Sýr in Prague.
In the midst of this craze, I went to a new friend’s home one night and was forced to forego my usual smažený for an actual home-cooked meal. I joked with my friend, “Watch. It’s going to be fish.”
Note. I hate fish. I hate sushi. I hate eating anything with gills. I hate anything that smells like fish. When I eat fish, every morsel I eat for the following week tastes like fish. Fish ice cream. Fish hamburgers. Fish fries. No thank you.
When my host handed me my plate, I went pale. Fish curry. I am always surprised at how much this seems to happen to me in a landlocked country. My friend and I exchanged glances. Sadly, I mouthed, “Smažený Sýr?”
We both knew the seriousness of the situation. I only had two options: the destruction of my taste buds, or starvation.
I chose the latter.
When no one was watching and she had finished her fish, I succeeded in a clandestine plate-swap. She groaned—she was full—but I nudged her under the table and locked eyes with her in a desperate plea. She is a loyal friend.
Later in the evening, with all of the guests glowing happily from the little sea creatures swimming around in their red wine bellies, I slumped in my chair. I was hungry.
Everyone took out and instrument and started to jam. Suddenly, someone started soulfully riffing to the following lyric:
You can eat my kielbasa, but don’t touch my Smažený Sýr!
I was inspired. Before long, I was jumping around the living room, singing my praise to Smažený Sýr, wailing about swimming in a bath of syr juice, and so on. “And when I get to Wenceslas Square, I’ll have the best—“ I sang, but suddenly someone interrupted me.
“Wenceslas?” inquired a Real Czech Person.
“Um, yes…” I trailed off.
“The best Smažený Sýr in Prague is at Narodni Trida! Everyone knows that!”
I gasped. “Really?” I looked around. Everyone was nodding in agreement.
I felt the life returning to my body. My mission was renewed!
Photo by Lindsey Matthews
Soon, I was making some excuse about having to get home before the night trams stopped running. Home is where the meal is. I hopped directly onto a tram headed for Narodni Trida.
I sipped whiskey as a preparatory measure to this monumental event. At Narodni Trida, I stepped off of the tram and looked around, wild-eyed.
There it was. A lonely, greasy little fried food stand.
I approached, every step filled with purpose, and ordered myself a Smažený Sýr from the bemused woman behind the counter.
I paid, took the delicacy into my hands, and licked my lips. I held it in front of my face and inhaled a deep whiff. I wanted this Smažený Sýr to be a holy experience.
And it was. From the first shy nibble to the final satisfied bite and every bit of chomping in between, I was enraptured.
by: L.T. Barcellona
Argentina is certainly more than steak and tangos. Lawrence Thornton probably said it best in Imagining Argentina: It is not often that you see life and fiction take each other by the hand and dance. This is Argentina: a land of soul and imagination. We’ve narrowed it down to our Top Five favorites. So saddle up, get down, come out, and play.
Gaucho Life Ever dreamed of becoming an Argentine cowboy on a vast estancia outside of magical Córdoba? If not, start now. It’s on. In a very classy kind of way. Learn polo, hike, watch birds, sip wine, and immerse yourself in high-end farm living. You can even learn to lasso, you gorgeous gaucho, you!
Wine Hey, quit your whining and give your palate something to rejoice about! Relax in Mendoza’s famed vineyards, ride horses in the Andes Mountains, and bring home an invaluable souvenir—Argentine cooking skills!
Buenos Aires For “just a little touch of star quality,” no visit to Argentina should skip out on the Paris of South America. The art, nightlife, cuisine, and fervor are top notch, and its diverse and bustling neighborhoods will seduce you in a heartbeat. Explore the rich art of Buenos Aires’ top galleries with an art historian from the University of Buenos Aires or explore the undiscovered, off-the-beaten-path of “forgotten” Buenos Aires to step aside from the tourist path for a bit.
Lake District Sapphire lakes, sweeping valleys, snow-capped purple-mountain-majesty. It’s all here in the stunning alpine lake district, a lesser-known dramatic gem. Picture fly-fishing in crystalline waters. Picture paddling through untouched wilderness. Picture hiking and horseback-riding through a National Geographic issue. If you’re picturing all of this, you’re picturing the Lake District!
Patagonia Patagonia is not just a high-end sportswear company, people! It’s one of the most vast, dramatic, and impressive frontiers in the world. Make like Che Guevara and take your own self-driven road trip through it (in an air-conditioned vehicle, this time). Gear up for glaciers, mountain-trekking, boating, and the fresh freedom of the open road.
In light of our launching our first experiences in Chile, we thought we’d provide a little guide to help you communicate with all your newfound Chilean buddies. It’s often hard, even for Spanish speakers, to get used to the way Spanish is done in Chile, what with their distinct elocution, a unique pronunciation of certain consonants and a tendency to drop S’s and final syllables. But as we go through this world, we must remember that no man (or woman) is an island (especially on Chiloé Island), and communication is the bedrock of any relationship. So while you’re lounging lakeside around Villarrica or sipping wine in Valparaíso, remember to reach out, open up, and habla a calzón quitado with some friendly Chilean folks. Now, before you go off misbehaving, I don’t mean to suggest that you remove your underwear with said folks. You see in Chile, “hablar a calzón quitado” isn’t just about losing your panties, least of all with strangers. The phrase has a number of interpretations; mainly “to speak openly and frankly, without restriction or shame”, or to call it as you see it, get straight to the point, or just lay it all out there. See what they did there? That’s lesson number one. Here are a few more:
Lumani: a blend of the words “Lunes,” “Martes” and “Miercoles,” or Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, this word refers to a meal of leftovers, but I wouldn’t wait until Jueves (Thursday) to eat those empanadas de mariscos.
Gordo or Gorda: Relax, those shorts don’t make you look fat. Or maybe they do, what do I know, I’m not over here judging. If someone calls you Gorda or Gordo, it’s (probably) meant as a term of endearment, like “babe.”
Pokemon: If you see a pokemon, don’t bother trying to catch it. In Chile, pokemon aren’t collectible monsters, they’re basically just skater kids.
Tragarse un tony: Literally, to swallow a clown. This expression means to die of laughter. Well, either laughter, or choking on those oversized shoes! Ha ha…*crickets*.
Mas doblado que Chino con visitas: If you’re “more doubled over than a Chinese man with visitors”, that means you’re very drunk…Uh, you should probably lie down actually. This expression really reveals the playful spirit of the Chilean language, wouldn’t you say? But I think it’s a bit un-PC…shouldn’t it be “mas doblado que Japonés con visitas”? Look, as a (n amateur) linguist, I don’t prescribe how language is spoken; I simply describe it, so…go figure. Take it up with someone else.
Before we add a new destination to our website - we test the hell out of it. We reach out to our curators to get the coolest local personalities, we go there ourselves, and then we send excursionist members. We’ve chosen 10 amazing destinations and we will be launching one every week. Stay tuned for our launch, and fear not! If you’re itching to get there before it hits the site, drop us a line and we’ll make it happen.
Kayak through a sunken forest. Spend time stargazing in the desert. Hike, trek, ride horses, and explore vineyards, rainforests, geysers, and one of the longest coastlines in the world. Gaze in awe—yes, awe—at salt flats that’ll make you feel like you’re walking on the sky. In native tongue, “Chile” means “where the world ends.” If that’s true, we can die happily.
Tango time! The romantic birthplace of Che Guevara, Eva Peron, and Katie Couric boasts superior wine, steak, and chorizo. Explore this astounding South American hub on horseback, by kayak, with an art tour, or ice-trekking in Patagonia.
Ah, Berlin. Nine times the size of Paris, more bridges than Venice, and more art and culture than you could absorb in a lifetime. Take a behind-the-scenes gallery tour, get stranded on Museum Island, or dance until dawn. Tear your walls down and join us.
A place where winter is summer and a kiwi is a bird; where you can snowboard and surf in the same day. Also, the first major nation in the world to have universal suffrage. New Zealand is where it’s at! Learn Maori warrior dances, trek through middle-earth, and see active volcanoes. It’ll make you wonder why Sir Edmund Hillary ever left!
Impress your pen-pal with Japanese calligraphy, stand up to your rival with martial arts immersion, or treat your friends with your newfound sake-brewing skills. Learn about anime, become a sushi chef, take a skiing and snow monkey adventure, or hike to Mount Fuji (and we’re not talking about the Hibachi restaurant!)
Things are changing fast in this exotic and fabled Southeast Asian country, and the time to go is now. Explore Bagan with an expert guide and see the sunset over thousands of glittering temples. Hike around Inle Lake, home of the leg-rowing Intha people. Set sail to Mrauk-U for the most untouched archaeological splendor you’ll ever feast your eyes upon. Head to the virtually isolated and legendary Mergui Archipelago for amazing diving or perhaps even a sighting of the elusive Sumatran rhino. This place is truly a treasure trove.
Private sailing to uninhabited islands? Check. French Caribbean cooking class? Oui! Kite-surfing with a world champion? Of course! In St. Barth’s we’ll even send you deep sea fishing and then have an expert chef fry up your spoils for you. Check out the ultimate hotspot for pampering and partying—because sometimes it’s glamour time.
The impossibly lush and fertile “Isle of Beauty, Isle of Splendour” boasts some of the best diving and hiking in the region. Stay at an eco-jungle resort, treks to hidden waterfalls, and soak in natural hot springs. And of course, no visitor should miss the Boiling Lake (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Now, life is complete.
Your senses come alive in Belize. World-class snorkeling and diving, hundreds of Mayan archaeological sites, a jaguar preserve and hundreds of bird species make this Central American destination a very, very tempting option. In fact, we’re going there right now. This blog is over.
By Steve Kovach
“Why do we travel?”
There’s no irrefutable answer to this question. But I think we can all agree that we travel, explore and seek out adventure for the same reason we do most things in life — because it makes us happy.
I just finished a book by Sonja Lyubomirsky called The How of Happiness. It was recommended to me by a relative, so I gave it a shot. It turned out to be a marvelous book, and I was surprised when I came across a passage about finding real, intrinsic happiness while traveling.
“One of the most intrinsic activities has to be the pursuit of goals while on vacation. People are more and more choosing to engage in worthwhile and effortful tasks while away from work. For example, traveling to Rome for an architecture class, helping build a house for Habitat for Humanity, training for a triathlon, or taking a class in France to learn how to run a winery. After all, no one besides yourself is rewarding you or pressuring you into such efforts. You do it because it’s diverting, it’s pleasurable, and it’s meaningful.”
This passage struck a personal chord with me. I first started solo backpacking through Europe as a young man, I was quite happy. How could I not be? Every day was full of new experiences, new scenery, new languages, new people, and new adventures.
Photo: Alan Kahler
But as the time went on, I grew disenchanted. The architectural wonders of Europe became lost on me. I grew weary of the same routine of checking into hostels, partying with other backpackers, and doing what tourists “should” do. It was “travel”, but it wasn’t necessarily meaningful.
When I was in Ireland last year, at the beginning of an 8-month trip from London to Moscow, I decided to make a change. Partying with other backpackers on sandy beaches is fun - but it just wasn’t enough. I decided to seek out what was important to me. It started the very first night of my trip. Being an enormous fan of traditional Irish folk music, I went to a pub in Galway and asked where all the musicians hung out. They directed me to a pub across town. I walked in to find an impromptu jam of guitars, drums, flutes, fiddles, and hoards of young revelers dancing the night away. I couldn’t contain my excitement. In an uncharacteristically bold move, I asked if I could join in. I ended up spending two very unplanned weeks in Galway, playing gigs every other night with a group of Irish musicians who, to this day, remain some of my closest friends. Music is my greatest passion, and I made an effort to seek out that passion whenever possible. I realized that combining passion with travel resulted in fulfillment and happiness.
After that experience in Ireland, I couldn’t be stopped. I resisted the tourist-track like the plague. While my fellow backpackers were going on pub crawls with other American and Australian travelers, I was out traveling my passions — even the “weird” ones. My personal interest in the Balkan conflict in the 1990’s led me to find myself on a private tour of a prison in Sarajevo and interviewing one of the inmates. I worked on an organic farm in Northern Portugal with a family in exchange for room and board. Every day I learned a new trade. Building a chicken coup, milking a goat, etc.
In Croatia, I befriended a group of elderly fisherman with the hope that they would someday let me join them on their boats in search of the bounty of the Adriatic Sea. After they realized I wasn’t going to give up, they “hired” me as an unpaid deckhand for one of the sunniest, fishing-filled weeks of my life. To some, that might sound miserable. To me, it was perfect. I was completely immersed in stunning nature, pursuing yet another passion (fishing), and hearing elaborate, potentially fictitious stories from old Croatian men.
Ladies love a man who can cook up a dish of octopus ink.
At night we’d return to shore and I’d learn how to cook and prepare fried octopus, and octopus-ink risotto. I returned from Europe a very bankrupt man (financially speaking), but in my heart I felt like the richest man on the planet. I had bettered myself. I had learned skills. I had fed my soul. I had learned how to make octopus-ink risotto. And everyone knows that the ladies just love a man who can cook up a nice dish of octopus ink.
When I returned to America and found myself working with the team here at Excursionist, I simply couldn’t contain my pride and enthusiasm for what I was doing. The notion that I could help others find meaning in their travel – pursue their individual passions in their travel - filled me with happiness even greater than going out and traveling myself.
There’s no passion too crazy or outlandish to achieve.
Figure out what means the most to you, and make it happen.
Live with passion. Live with it in all aspects of your life. And when it comes time to take those passions on the road, we’ve got you covered.
BY Stephen Kovach
It’s no secret that we are inspired to explore by the books we read, by the songs we hear, and by the films we watch. It became obvious to me that I had an addiction to travel when I realized that all my favorite films, books, and songs were about adventure — about being on the road. About restless hearts and the unquenchable yearning for what’s beyond the horizon.
Before joining up with Excursionist, I spent two years wandering through 43 states and 45 countries. These are the films that inspired me to do it.
1- Into the Wild
Based on the real-life story of Christopher McCandles, Into the Wild is one of the few films that cause me to weep like a schoolgirl. Finding himself disillusioned and jaded in a world driven by the material, he gives away all of his money and possessions and searches for higher meaning in the baren wilderness of Alaska. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of memorable characters that shape his life. Chris’s yearning for the truth — for true happiness — is a feeling that seems to resonate amongst many travelers. The film takes you on a journey through some of the most amazing landscapes in the United States.
“The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences.”
“It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations. Absolute freedom.”
“Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… give me truth.”
2- The Beach
A 20-something American backpacker redefines the term “off the beaten path” as he seeks perfect existence in the undiscovered islands of Southern Thailand.
“It’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.”
3- The Razors Edge
In this largely unknown and tragically underrated film, an American soldier returns from the first World War to find himself a deeply changed man. He came back to a live that had everything, yet he wanted nothing. He saved the world and then it shattered. He leaves everything behind and embarks on a journey to find himself. The path to enlightenment is as sharp and narrow as a razor’s edge. His travels take him from the left bank of Paris to the monasteries atop the Himalayas in Northern India.
“It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.”
4- Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Archeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the US government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis. Ask any child aged five-to-ten what they want to be when they grow up, and it’s likely they will simply cry out “Indiana Jones!” The last true adventurer and an American icon of exploration. The film takes us on a journey from the Himalayas to Egypt.
5- Planes, Trains and Automobiles
We’ve all been there. Simply trying to get home, and having to endure the company of a clumsy, over-talkative and abrasive oaf. A hilarious yet amazingly poignant film about friendship, family, and what is truly important in life.
6- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
A savage and psychedelic journey into the heart of the American dream.
“You better take care of me, Lord. If you don’t you’re gonna have me on your hands.”
A depressed, divorced and desperate Middle School English teacher takes a vacation to Napa Valley with his best friend. Miles in an unflappably pessimistic aspiring writer and an enthusiastic lover of wine. This film caused national sales of Merlot to decline 19% after the year of its release. Have a watch to see why. A must-see for anyone interested in wine and extremely dark humor.
Miles: “Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.”
Jack: “See? Right there. Just what you just said. That is beautiful. ‘A smudge of excrement… surging out to sea.’ I could never write that.”
Miles: “Neither could I, actually. I think it’s Bukowski.”
8- Dumb and Dumber
The hilarious cross-country adventures of two good-hearted and Incredibly stupid best friends.
“According to the map we’ve only gone 4 inches.”
9- The Motorcycle Diaries
The film is based on the personal journals of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, and highlights the freedom, adventure, and personal discovery that are all parts of the travel experience. It’s a beautiful movie about one of the most influential people to have ever lived, whether you think his influence was good or bad is up to you. If you can watch this film without wanting to hit the road, there might be something wrong with you.
“What do we leave behind when we cross each frontier? Each moment seems split in two; melancholy for what was left behind and the excitement of entering a new land.”
“What we had in common - our restlessness, our impassioned spirits, and a love for the open road.”
10- Lost in Translation
This movie throws you right in the middle of modern day Tokyo from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about its ways. Bob is an aging actor starring in commercials, while Charlotte is the bored wife of a photographer there on business. They are an unlikely pair, experiencing a degree of loneliness in a foreign city filled with millions of people. This is a beautifully shot film that also shows how funny and interesting traveling in a new country can be – the little random, things that happen to you while traveling can sometimes be the most memorable moments.
11- National Lampoons Vacation
Over-ambitious family man, Clark W. Griswald takes his family on a cross-country odyssey in search of the mythical “Wally World”. Many trials and tribulations ensue.
“The Old West was dirty. Everything isn’t like home. If everything were like home, there would be no reason for leaving home.”
“Everybody in the car. Boat leaves in two minutes… or perhaps you don’t want to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, which is only four short hours away?”
12- Easy Rider
Two men in 1969 ride to New Orleans in search of freedom.
“They’ll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But the moment they actually see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”
by: A.J. Handler
Have you noticed the conspicuous appearance of millions of little colored lights strung up all over the place this time of year?
…No? I said they appeared conspicuously…Come on!
Well anyway, they started popping up weeks ago, and now they’re everywhere. They’re on buildings and in shop windows, living rooms and offices, they’re hanging from our roofs and porches, they’re suspended over our streets and wrapped around our trees and things. Seriously, take a look around; it’s pretty festive out there.
If you’re traveling just about anywhere over the holidays, from New York to Tokyo, its safe to say you’ll encounter these luminous little features of the landscape wherever you go, and they can be one of the reasons why a city like the effulgent Edinburgh is such a fantastically lovely place to visit this season. “But just how did these little guys get here?” some of you have possibly wondered. Allow me to shed some miniature light on the subject.
The tradition of using light creatively to celebrate Christmas dates at least as far back as the tradition of putting reindeer antlers on your car—to 18th century Germany, where candles were used to adorn Christmas trees in wealthier households (candles weren’t that cheap then).
It wasn’t until the next century, however, that strings of electric lights were used to illuminate Christmas trees, or even as public displays of Christmas cheer, and it wasn’t until even later that the practice became common among private citizens, though buildings had been availed of electric light since Sir Joseph Swan provided London’s Savoy Theater with his incandescent bulbs in 1881. In 1882, miniature electric lighting was even used to costume the principal fairies in the opera Lolanthe on its opening night at the Savoy, thus giving rise to the term “fairy lights”, still used in the UK, and setting the stage, so to speak, for later theatrical accommodations of miniature lighting technology in costume design (cf. Disney’s Tron).
Thomas Edison is known to have created the first public display of stringed Christmas lights around his Menlo Park laboratory in 1880, while credit for the first use of electric lights to strangle a Christmas tree goes to Edison’s VP, Edward H. Johnson, who hand-strung 80 red, white and blue lights around the rotating tree in his 5th avenue home in 1882, earning him the distinction of “Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights,” and forerunner of the Christmas display arms race.
Edward Johnson’s tree
Still, while Christmas light displays gradually became de rigueur for businesses and at the White House around the turn of the 20th century, they were prohibitively expensive for ordinary folk (and required a bit of electrical engineering know-how) until at least 1903, when General Electric began to offer pre-assembled Christmas light kits, and even after that, electric Christmas tree lights did not overtake candles until 1930. I know, using candles to light up Christmas trees doesn’t sound too safe, does it? Well, unfortunately, it never was. Let’s just say that chestnuts weren’t the only things roasting during the Christmas season.
Old Man Clemens: “Judas Priest, Barbara, it’s one of those flaming trees again.”
Barbara: “Don’t put it out with your boots, Ted.”
Old Man Clemens: “Don’t tell me my business, Devil Woman. Call the fire department, this one’s outta control.”
Legend has it that Albert Sadacca, the teenage son of a family who owned a novelty lighting company in New York City, was terribly concerned by the report of a particular Christmas tree fire in 1917, and urged his family to begin manufacturing and selling strings of colorful lights to be used as Christmas tree decorations. He and his brothers founded NOMA Electric Co., kicked off widespread enthusiasm for the strands of colored lights, and dominated the Christmas light market until 1960. By then, the lights we know and love today were already ubiquitous.
Nowadays, lights on strings are practically synonymous with holiday cheer and warm-fuzziness. So, you bleary-eyed wanderer, next time your heart is melting in the gentle glow of these silly little lights, whether you’re celebrating a Creole Christmas or Nawlins New Year, reveling in Rio or dancing and dining on the Danube, (or even just risking your neck to string them up around your house) you’ll know way more than you ever cared to about the totally obscure history of a small part of what makes this season so special.
“Dad, you taught me everything I know about exterior illumination.” -Clark W. Griswold
Bahadur Shah Zafar
We hear singing in the distance that sounds both discordant and melodious: one part Sufi worship, one part screeching into a microphone. As we draw closer, we see a large poster of Bahadur Shah Zafar, with a few hundred worshippers in a prayer hall. The whole scene unfolding in front of us amplifies the heat of the midday Yangon sun. Having grown up in India, the name Zafar transports me back to high school where I learned that he was the last Mughal emperor and that he was banished to Burma where he was deposed, imprisoned and eventually died most unceremoniously. While the poster was meant to remind us of the size and scale of the Mughal Empire, which ruled India for over four centuries, what we see is a melancholic old man, his eyes full of resignation and his shoulders somehow weighed down by large rubies and pearls. Here he lies in Yangon, on the fringe, his grave now a place of worship for a small community of Burmese Muslims.
Not far from this site, there is a man selling used books and photographs. My wife (she is a lawyer) is enamored by a large and anachronistic-looking book called the The Courts Manual 1954. I pick up a black and white photograph of a handsome looking British soldier and am struck by the uncanny similarity between this photo and the poster of Zafar. On the surface, the soldier looks like an archetypal image of British strength and ascendancy. But this image also holds the same expression of loneliness and imminent decline that is present in Zafar.
To travel in Burma is to be acutely aware of power - how it is gained, sustained and lost. As we walk around hauntingly beautiful colonial buildings in a state of disrepair, we chance upon a street filled with new mansions built by the Army Generals. They look equally opulent with perfectly manicured lawns and gardens. Amidst the General’s houses we see Aung San Su Kyi’s home with a picture of her father (who liberated the country from the British) on her gate and the National League of Democracy flag. The flag bears the symbol of a fighting peacock that represents the decades-long democratic struggle against military dictatorship in the country.
Aung San Su Kyi’s home
In Yangon, one not only grapples with questions of power and politics but also comes face to face with Burma’s religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity. We visit the resplendent Shwedagon Pagoda (the oldest Pagoda in the world), bustling markets, a Krishna temple, a church with service in eight languages and a Jewish synagogue. To momentarily escape hard questions and the heat, we have a Myanmar lager at the Strand Hotel and plan our next meal: mohinga or biryani?
Before leaving for Burma, a friend remarked, “If you take all the cathedrals and churches in Europe, replace them with brick orange pagodas and stuff them into an area the size of New York City, you will get Bagan.”
Looking out across the temples of Bagan
Nothing prepares you for the beauty of Bagan. Bagan rivals or even surpasses other unique landscapes I have visited such as the moonscapes of the Wadi Rum in Jordan, the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, the Mayan temples in the jungles of Tikkal or the early-morning views of Chomolungma from Tibet.
Bagan is breathtakingly beautiful and deeply spiritual. Here we spend three lazy days hiring bicycles and getting lost on the labyrinthine dirt roads that lead to lush green fields with thousands (yes, thousands!) of temples rising from the ground. The sunsets here are magnificent. The temples are an orange-pink-crimson color, some of them with golden domes that reflect the sun’s rays. As dusk falls, they give off an ethereal glow. Like the Magao Caves in China or the Ajanta Caves in India, we enjoyed walking into these temples with torches to see intricate Buddhist paintings on the walls. We also hired boats down the Irrawaddy River and learned about animist spirits or “Nat” gods that predated Buddhism in Burma at a temple atop a volcanic rock.
Infinity pool looking toward Mount Popa, home of the animist gods
Bagan still feels eerily empty despite being the most popular destination in Burma. We hope it stays this way.
There are places that sound more exotic than they are. Mandalay, like Casablanca or Zanzibar, is in this category. Blame Kipling or Frank Sinatra for our collective exoticising of this place. Mandalay is a big dusty city that has neither the charm of Bagan nor the sense of historical immediacy that Yangon has. Yet it is a great base for interesting sights 1-2 hours away. We spend a day in Pyin U Lwin, which used to be the summer capital of the British and is now a “hill station” destination for people wanting to escape the city’s heat. Highlights here include visiting a paradisaical garden maintained by Burma’s richest man (Tay Za), sneaking into a house straight out of the Shining (!) and seeing rolling green hills reminiscent of hill stations in Munnar or Ooty in India.
We also spend a day wandering around (in horse carriages and boats) rural Mandalay - Amarapura (which boasts the worlds largest teak bridge), Inwa (empty fields and ruins), Sagaing (white and gold stupas amidst endless green hills) were some of the highlights.
Myanmar’s infamous “Moustache Brothers”
In Mandalay, we attend a one hour show hosted by the “Moustache Brothers.” The Moustache Brothers are a controversial and well-known Burmese comedy troupe that poke fun at the government, have been in and out of jail (two brothers spent 7 years in a labor camp) and host a nightly show in their apartment as they are banned from performing in public. Their performance is rooted in a traditional Burmese vaudevillian art form called “anyeint pwe” which means “gentle entertainment.” They start their shows with this joke:
A Burmese man visits a dentist in India.
The dentist asks him: “Don’t you have dentists in Burma?”
“Yes, we do,” the man replies, “but we’re not allowed to open our mouths.”
Saying the wrong thing can still get you locked up, but these three brothers continue their evening performance toeing the line between tongue-and-cheek slapstick humor and outright lampooning of the regime, in a room with 10 plastic chairs and a couple of beers for the audience.
To get to our hotel, we have to take a boat. We paddle through dark blue water with a boatman who uses his leg to paddle. Local fishermen here are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. We spend many hours wandering around aimlessly in boats visiting floating markets, floating gardens, and weaving in and out of tiny inlets surrounded by entire houses on stilts. Parts of the lake feel like scenes from Apocalypse Now and Beasts of the Southern Wild. As our boat makes its way down the Lake, we see women growing tomatoes, squash and flowers on wooden trellises in the water.
Paddling on Inle Lake
Inle is much about taking in the endless blue expanse of water as it is about understanding Burma’s ethnic minorities. Inle, part of the Shan State, is home to various tribes (Intha, Pa-O, Taung Yo, Danu etc.) who all all display their food and crafts in a big chaotic market by the lake every day.
Cottages at the Inle Princess Resort
The hotel we stayed in (Inle Princess Resort) added to the magic of the place. Thanks to a nice surprise by Excursionist staff, we were upgraded to the best suite. The hotel feels like an extension of the lake and the houses on stilts. Each chalet is built with bamboo, overlooks a lotus pond with the Shan hills in the distance, and comes with outdoor showers – a perfect place to enjoy the peace and tranquility of this little oasis in the hills.
On our last evening in Inle, we rent bikes and bike through beautiful open fields that lead to a vineyard (the only one in Burma). We are one of three people and it feels like we have the whole vineyard to our self. During our last dinner at the hotel, we remark about how virgin and untouched Burma feels. No sooner do we say this than we hear a large group of middle-aged British tourists romping into the dinner area, with one woman loudly saying “the orphans make me feel energized!” This makes me realize that visiting Burma three years from now will be a very different experience. Go now before the boorish global touristis arrive!
OBAMA IN YANGON
On our last day in Yangon, we see two giant U.S aircraft jets dwarfing the airport in size. The engines roar powerfully. President Obama visited the day before we left. He is the first president of the United States to visit the county. Every local newspaper has a picture of him smattered across the front page. Western media sees his visit as a triumph of democracy - Obama, “extending the hands of friendship.”
Average Burmese people, however, seem cautiously optimistic. On one hand, his arrival means that the forces of history that lead to social and economic progress have been set in motion. Over 400 prisoners were released the day he arrived. Some, like U Par Par Lay of the Moustache Brothers are more doubtful. When asked about the regime, U Par Par Lay says, “ “In Myanmar we just remove the label on the wine bottle and put a new one on. But the wine…the inside is the same.” As a traveller on an eleven-day trip, it’s easy to confuse the label for the wine.
Aung San Su Kyi