“The most efficient way to introduce freedom into a repressed society is through dance” – Karl Marx. I just made that quote up, but Burma will never be the same after my night of pure wizardry and dance. Yeah, right. Anyway, we all had fun and no one got hurt. Burma rocks!
“It Ain’t Too Hard For Me To Jam…”
Michael Jackson – ‘Jam’ (1991)
July 15th, 2011
Leh, Ladakh, India (The Glorious Himalayas – once again)
Dear Friends and Family,
Sorry for the long gap since my last update. I am OK. Just to dispel any rumors or crazy notions, no, my body was not tossed off the side of the USS Destroy the Evidence (AKA The USS Improper/Irreverent Burial at Sea, AKA The USS Mission Accomplished) – What a farce!
I am alive and kicking in Ladakh, in the amazing Himalaya mountains once again (so far my favorite place on this great big planet.) I just finished another 9-day trek from Padum to Lamayuru with my horseman Dorje and his three trusty horses. I will be leaving Leh again in a few days for 2 more weeks of trekking before flying to China on my way to Mongolia. I will hopefully soon provide some photos and videos of my adventures here in the Himalayas, but for now, this update will focus on a fun night I had in Burma a few months ago.
The Hoarder of Hoarders
But before I get into that story, I am proud to announce that I have been contacted by the producers of the hit A&E TV show ‘Hoarders.’ Perhaps you’ve seen that show, where mis-wired confused people collect and hoard plastic bags, crap they bought on eBay, clothing, or trinkets. They hoard so much that their houses become unworkable and a total disaster and they have to have loved ones (suckers) and a team of professional un-hoarders (paid suckers) come in and make sense of all their crap. (That reminds me, I need to call my mom soon… ouch!)
Turns out that I love that show so much, I have been hoarding CD’s, DVD’s, VCR tapes, USB keys, hard drives, and TiVo boxes filled with every episode of ‘Hoarders.’ I have backpacks and wheelbarrows and garages filled with ‘Hoarders’ episodes. Yes, I am a ‘Hoarders’ Hoarder. There, I said it! Don’t judge me!
The first step with any addiction is to admit that I am powerless against this ‘Hoarders’ Hoarding, which I have done. I am now working on the second step, which is to buy more useless ‘Hoarders’ crap on eBay and store it at my mom’s house.
I will let you know when I will be on TV so you can watch and laugh at me and my addiction.
OK, so I was in Burma (Myanmar) for about a month back in April. I was able to score a 30-day tourist visa at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok very quickly (same day service, actually.) In general, it can be very difficult to get a Burmese visa, but for some reason, it is quick and easy if you do it in person in Bangkok.
A few quick notes about Burma and its government and complicated regulations/logistics…
- There are no ATM’s in Burma. ZERO. You have to bring all the money you think you will need with you.
- The money you bring has to be in US dollars
- The US dollars you bring have to be pristine. No wrinkles, no crinkles, no marks or ink of any kind. No creases. Just pure clean crisp dollars. No exceptions.
- When you change your US dollars for Burmese Kyat (pronounced ‘Chot’ – kinda rhymes with ‘hot’), you will get the best exchange rates in the capital, Yangon. Outside of Yangon, you can expect to receive about 10% less for your dollars. So most tourists arrive in Burma with a wallet full of dollars, and then exchange them for a HUGE wad of Kyat in Yangon, and then carry them for their entire visit in Burma.
- You must do a delicate dance of exchanging only what you think you will need for the duration of your stay because when you finish your trip and try to sell your Kyat back into dollars, you will lose at least 10%.
- And you must be careful not to lose your big wad of money. Because that would really suck.
- The Burmese government is actually a very authoritarian and repressive military junta (i.e. mean jerks.) The Burmese citizens are not treated well (in general), and the government/military siphons off a good chunk of the tourist money that comes into the country.
- The government/military either owns or controls many/most of the airlines, trains, communication systems, tourist destinations, museums, buses and major hotels in the country. It is a chore to try to move about the country and sleep and eat and see the sights without a good chunk of your money going to the nasty regime.
- The internet system in Burma is the worst I have ever seen. Because telecommunications are so controlled, there are VERY few places to get online. And when you find one, it is woefully slow (think dial-up speeds), and social media platforms like Facebook or even Hotmail and Gmail can be impossible to access, due to censorship and filters. Add in frequent power disruptions and you get a complicated web environment. And in my month there, I only found wifi one time. One time! Granted, you don’t go to Burma to surf online, but this shows you how repressive and backward the country is.
- Along those same lines, almost NONE of the local citizens has a mobile phone. I don’t know the actual numbers, but I would guess that Burma has one of the lowest phone and mobile phone saturation percentages in the world.
- You will probably be followed and watched by Big Brother while in Burma. I was. We were. Big Brother just wants to make sure you are not teaching the locals about how messed up their situation really is. You can get the locals in a TON of trouble just by having a conversation about politics or the government/military, so it is very wise to not discuss any of these matters with the locals. Just talk about football (soccer) or Buddha and you will be safe.
- The transportation system in Burma is very bad, as you might guess. Roads are generally bad. Buses are old and jam-packed. Trains are slow and old. And buses leave and arrive at crazy times, which makes it very hard to get around the country without losing valuable time. We figured that in our 26 days in Burma, we spent a full 5 days traveling, not just 5 8-hour days, I’m talking about 5 24-hour periods getting from Point A to Point B.
OK, so those are the negative things about Burma. Some people refuse to visit the country because they don’t want any of their money going to the nasty regime, or because they don’t like the human rights record of the regime. Valid points, surely. But if you do it right, you will be able to sprinkle your money among the sweet people and businesses that are just trying to scrape by and make a living. At some point, the regime will fail (like all regimes) and the country will experience the liberation and awakening that it so rightfully deserves.
So on my flight from Bangkok to Yangon, I met a fantastic Spanish couple, Alicia and Jorge (aka ‘Parra’.) We stayed at the same hotel in Yangon (Motherland Inn 2) and spent 25 days and nights together. I got to annoy them while practicing my Spanish, and they got to practice their English with me. It was funny, but I would ask a question in Spanish, and they would answer in English. We were the ‘Serpiente Family’ for those 25 days, and we had a friggin’ blast.
Here are Alicia and Jorge (‘Parra’) as we are getting ready to hop on yet another long-haul crowded bus in yet another dirty dusty bus terminal in Burma. I miss you both!
From Yangon, we went to see the Golden Rock near Kinpun, then up to Mandalay and to see the wonderful U Bein teak bridge near Amarapura. Then we went to Bagan, which is one of the 100 Wonders of the World and was simply brilliant. Bagan – imagine all of the cathedrals in Europe squeezed onto the island of Manhattan, and that’s what you see in Bagan. Thousands of ancient religious structures scattered around the fields and along the Irrawaddy River. The Featured Image for this update is of one of the countless temples of Bagan. Here it is in all its glory.
I have lots of amazing pix from my month in Burma (and Cambodia and Sri Lanka and the Himalayas for that matter), but they will have to wait their turn in the slow update line for my website.
We also squeezed in a nice break from the oppressive Burmese summer heat by escaping to Hsipaw and Pyin Oo Lim in the hill country. And we finished off our Burmese visit with 6 nights on the lovely, quiet beaches of Ngwe Saung (where we were joined by hilarious Manuel from Chile, whom we had met earlier in Hsipaw.)
I have to say that the Burmese people are about the nicest people on the planet that I have met (right up there with the people of Laos, Bali, and Ladakh.) And the women in Burma are unbelievably beautiful and graceful. I fell in love with one of the waitresses at our hotel in Bagan… so beautiful!
So Alicia and Parra and I were walking around beautiful Hsipaw one evening, enjoying the sunset and talking with some of the locals. They told us about a big celebration at a local monastery that night and invited us to join them. Why not?
Apparently, the celebration was in honor of some of the monks who were graduating to the next level. Lots of food and music and hundreds of Burmese people made the night a very fun event. Side note – we were the only westerners or tourists that we saw all night. There was a main stage where a rock band was playing, and there was also a small tent where they were playing traditional Burmese music. That’s where the magic happened (AKA ‘the scene of the crime’.)
Ali and Parra and I entered the tent and sat down. They were playing some drums and cymbals and a few other traditional instruments. There was an old man wearing a fisherman’s hat dancing a traditional dance. When he saw us enter the tent he invited me to come dance with him. How could I refuse?
(Note: For all of the following videos, I have embedded the youtube player directly into the update. I have also included the direct link to each video in case your browser or firewall prevents you from seeing the video inline.)
This first video is a bit long, but you can see him dancing and encouraging me to join him. Near the end, we are joined by some other locals and our South Korean friend Park. And then I start to spice up the Burmese dance by sprinkling in a sampling of good old-fashioned Kentucky Hillbilly dancing.
Now, I almost never smoke a cigarette. OK, occasionally when I am playing cards with the boys or sitting around a campfire with my buddies in Arizona or Colorado, maybe I’ll smoke a cigarette or cigar. So here I bum a cigarette off of Parra and join the old man and his dance team. Now I’m in Flavor Country. At one point he tries a Burmese Claw move on me, so I come back at him with the Double Burmese Claw. Fight fire with bigger fire, that’s my motto! Check Mate! I loved to watch him laugh.
FYI – most of the songs that night sounded the same. Who knows… maybe it actually was the same song over and over again. When one song finished, I would call out, ‘play that one song’, and sure enough, the same song would crank back up.
And almost every day I get the same question: Lex, you have matinee idol looks, a silky head of hair like Adonis, the grace and poise of a gazelle, and the funky, slinky moves of a Solid Gold Dancer… who are your influences?
OK, that question is just coming from inside my skull, but it deserves an answer nonetheless.
I would say that my amazing dancing skills are a delicate blend of yoga, my hillbilly upraising in Kentucky, my years dancing with my two brothers’ entertainment company, the ZOOperstars at sporting events, and closely watching the twitching moves of the drunk crack whore on the corner in Madrid when I was in college.
But seriously, who are my personal dance influences??? I would have to say it’s a sophisticated combination of Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Estefan (and the Sound Machine, of course), M.C. Hammer, Harpo Marx, Oprah Winfrey, MC Skat Kat from the Paula Abdul “Opposites Attract‘ video, W.C. Fields, Orville Redenbacher, Barbara Walters, Dick Cheney, Michael Jackson, and mushrooms. Many people say I have more moves than a Rubik’s Cube, but that’s a topic for another time.
So here is the next video. The wheels are really coming off the Lex-mobile now. Every time I finished dancing, I was exhausted. I would sit down to catch my breath (smoking cigarettes did not help), and the old man or another dude would drag me back out on the dance floor. Who am I not to share my dancing gifts with the wonderful Burmese people? And where the HELL were all the women!?!?!
In this next video, I introduce the Latvian Horse Dance, my trekking headlamp, some Running Man, and some retarded Russian kick-boxing moves. Watch the old guy laugh. That’s my friend Parra laughing toward the end (Alicia was working the camera.)
Sprinkle in a little Leg Switcheroo Dance, some violent left-right thrusts, some gay hula, and this is what you get. I was exhausted at this point. I return to my seat (briefly) and sit next to Park, and I tell him in Korean, ‘Gamsa Hamnida, Gamsa Hamnida’, which means ‘Thank you, thank you.’ And then ‘Shi Le Hamnida, Shi Le Hamnida’, which means ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please excuse me.’ Both he and the old man crack up. That’s just how I roll.
I call this one the Burmese Sneaky Python Dance. The sneaky snake dance works in every country, by the way, and Burma is no exception. A little rotating leg-guitar in the middle to mix things up. Then I find a plastic rope on the ground and terrorize the local dancers with the scary plastic snake.
The Burmese Smoking Dragon Dance. The name says it all. Now I am smoking two cigarettes at once. Total Flavor Country. Smoking and clanging the cymbals to the beat. Trying hard not to puke. The old man was clapping and laughing. The night was getting crazy.
The final dance of the night. My ‘Swan Song’, if you will. I ain’t going out like a chump… I’m gonna leave ’em laughing and wanting more. ‘Peace Out Burmese People… I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.’
I had been working on this one for a few months, dating back to my adventures in Siem Reap (Cambodia) with John and Ina (Romania) in the bars and nightclubs on Pub Street. This is a tribute to the tuk-tuk (moto rickshaw) drivers who permeate the Southeast Asian transport scene. The old man and I also enjoy a few moments of ballroom dancing. I love the way the old man joins us and waves to the crowd at the end. Just think, the first dance I saw him doing that night was a graceful traditional Burmese dance, and by the end of the night, I had polluted his dance database with the clumsy Tuk-Tuk dance.
After that final dance Parra, Alicia and I thanked the old man and the dancers for letting us join them. Then we bought the kids who were sitting next to us some hot dogs and snacks and went to the main stage and listened to the live band for a bit. What a great night!
Thank you Burma, and thank you, Burmese people. Thanks for the great visit and splendid hospitality. While it was tough to travel in Burma logistically, I am very glad I made the effort. Hang in there, your cruel repressive regime will soon crumble and you will be free!
So a few more weeks of trekking in Ladakh, then South China to re-connect with some old friends and see Shanghai for the first time, then up to Beijing to stay with Gilly Billy (whom I met in Dali, China 10 years ago.) Then to Mongolia to ride horses with my Israeli buddy Segev, who I met in Laos back in March.
Stay tuned for the official launch of my 50/50 Lexpedition Contest, where you will win a prize if you can guess which country will be my 50th country.
And on Monday, July 18th I will celebrate my 43rd birthday while standing and shouting on top of a Himalayan mountain somewhere here in Ladakh. Unfortunately, this weekend back home my extended family is celebrating our annual family reunion, called ‘Sveiki’, which is the Latvian equivalent of the Hawaiian ‘Aloha’, only with a lot more alcohol, horseshoes, and pork and pork by-products. So I am definitely missing that fantastic celebration… but alas, I am here enjoying the holy tar out of these amazing mountains and people. Wahooooo!
Thanks to all of you for your love, support, and friendship. I hope to see you soon somewhere somehow.
Peace & Love from way over here,
Perhaps the #1 Uncle In the World
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