The Other Side of the Tracks

Last month during a flight in Vietnam, Danica and I watched the film Minimalism that had been recommended by a friend in LA a few weeks before we left (but after I had already put my stuff in storage and moved out of my cozy Santa Monica condo). I won’t go as far as to say that the film changed my life, but I came away from it believing that I could be much happier living a more minimalistic life and not caring so much about having all the stuff that society tells us we need or should have in order to be happy. It’s easy to say this now because I’ve been living out of a backpack for two months, wearing clothes that need a good laundering, not wearing makeup, not styling my hair, and simply not giving much thought to how I look or what people think, other than to make sure I am respectfully dressed before entering a temple. I’ve essentially traded all my skin care, beauty and hair products for sunscreen and bug spray. My hair and skin are dry and my nails are brittle and unpolished, but I could care less. Being forced to live very minimally as a traveler really makes me think about all the stuff I have sitting in storage in LA that I certainly don’t need, but now don’t even want. This feeling has really been weighing on me since we spent our last morning in Yangon riding around the city on a commuter train. Before I go into more detail, here’s a quick recap of the rest of our time in Myanmar since my last post.

After a fantastic two-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, it was nice to spend a few days exploring Inle by boat and seeing all the local handicraft, including weavers (using lotus flower, silk, cotton and bamboo to make beautiful scarves), silversmiths and fishermen. We road bikes, groaned through Burmese massages, and enjoyed an afternoon tasting the local wine at Red Mountain Vineyard. We also spent one night at a floating hotel on the lake and despite the 4:00 a.m. prayers, noise from the motor boats of locals heading to the market, and the sneaky mice stealing from the welcome fruit basket in my room, it was quite peaceful on the lake. Since we were all flying out of Yangon, George heading back to LA, Danica and I continuing on to the beaches in Thailand, we spent our last few nights in Yangon, where our Myanmar exploration began. We attempted to see the former Pegu Club, which was closed to tourists, the historical museum, which was closed on Mondays – the day we had free – and the Shwedegon Paya at sunset, which didn’t happen simply because we were too “Pagoda’d out” by then. However, we did have dinner with Tuya, ran into some of our new Swiss friends from the Kalaw trek, and saw a few more of the local sites, such as the Crocodile Farm that George and Danica visited while I stayed back in a hipster tea house reading.

On that last full day in Yangon, we decided to see how the locals live by taking a three-hour morning ride on the local commuter train, the Yangon Circular Railway. George had read about it on Travelfish and since it only cost $.20 USD per ticket, we figured it was worth the adventure. While I found the experience to be difficult, I think it was necessary for me to see Yangon from the other side of the tracks. It was almost more than I could handle, sitting in one spot for three hours, a bench seat in a train car with no air conditioning that continuously pulled in and out of poverty stricken stations. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to exit the train before it made all 39 stops and completed its circular route. At many of these stops, people would jump on selling various items such as sliced watermelon, quail eggs, water and local cuisine. And from my window seat, I could see the people at the stations who were selling food and handicrafts rush to cover up their items before the train exited the station and kicked up dirt and debri all over them. I personally used a bandana to cover my mouth and nose for most of the ride, but by the time we got off the train, my sunscreen and bug spray soaked arms were covered in black specks of dirt. The beauty in this country is undeniable, but so is the poverty, the trash and graffiti, the clear separation between wealthy and poor, and the slums hidden from a tourist’s view by new tall buildings in front of them.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen such poverty, and it certainly won’t be the last. Often times we are so sheltered and wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t see or can’t even empathize with the existence of such circumstances that millions of people live in around the world. However, these are real experiences that really put things into perspective for me and make me realize how ignorant I am at times and how there is so much to learn about other cultures. I am really thankful for the opportunities I’ve had in life that allow me to travel and continuously learn about myself and others.

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