Saturday, May 2, 2020

Myanmar -An Illusion of Separation   

An illusion of separation has been in my awareness since arriving in Myanmar, one of the most underdeveloped countries in Southeast Asia. Each day I grow more appreciative that while the circumstances of my life are very different from the day to day lives of most Burmese, at the core we are the same. Our differences are primarily cultural. While I have had the significant advantages of health, education, and relative wealth, more so than many here, these create a difference but need not create a distance.

When I come from a place that recognizes that we are all fundamentally the same, that we all experience the pleasure, pain, and suffering of the human condition, then I can appreciate we are all the same in our humanity. The separation we create in our consciousness is but an illusion.

 I am the grandmother sorting and selling chilis with my granddaughter by the side of the road.

 I am the infant sleeping in the marketplace amid my mother's array of vegetables for sale.

 I am the vendor squatting on a narrow wooden platform in the mud and slime of the meat market, selling hacked up pieces of raw chicken, frogs, and fish under the glaring hot sun.

 I am the young boy looking wide-eyed into the windows of cars hoping to sell my jasmine flower necklaces to the drivers to dangle from their car mirror or for an offering to the Buddha.

 I am the adolescent mother with a nursing babe at her breast seeking a handout, weaving my way between cars in the gridlocked intersection, hoping to curry the sympathy of those more fortunate.

 I am the barefoot ox cart driver bumping along the deeply rutted, red-earthen roads with a load of manure to be spread for fertilizer in the fields.

 I am the young woman, face delicately painted with yellow thanaka, jammed into a crowded bus, going off to work in the heat, with my tiffin pail prepared early in the morning.

 I am the rice farmer at the back of a wooden plow prodding the oxen to till the fields for another planting.

I am the old woman stooped over in the rice paddy sewing rice in the muddy water.

 I am the monk sitting before the Buddha sonorously chanting prayers at 5 am for peace and compassion.

 I am the novice monk clanging my cymbal, alerting almsgivers to fill my bowl as I pass by their homes and businesses.

 I am the temple tout peddling my wares to tourists, hoping their eyes glance upon something of interest so they will give me lucky money.

I am the young Muslim woman on the beach patiently trying to sell my sea pearl necklaces to the few tourists left in offseason.

I am a woman from the hill tribe wearing my tribal brass rings around my neck that illustrate my womanhood but also allow me to pose for tourists lucky money when I go into town.

 I am the work-worn woman hoeing the potato fields, supported in my sweat-filled labor by the songs of my neighbors who toil with me.

 I am the steely-nerved bus driver entrusted with my passengers on dirt roads rutted, rocky and treacherous, in a vehicle with threadbare tires, that lurches and groans between gears, delivering travelers with their baggage, goats, and chickens to their destination.

 I am the smiling taxi driver lost in finding the destination that these foreigners wish to go to, but anxious to please.

 I am the six-fingered waiter serving noodle soup to foreigners in the guest house, knowing they all will ask the same questions.

 I am the old woman resting on a wooden platform, bones aching, eyesight blurred, watching the daily cycle of life unfold in her family's multi-generational bamboo hut.

 I am the dancer dressed in my finest costume for the parade, moving my hands in choreographed ritual expression, along with hundreds of other young women, honoring our country, our people and  tradition in this age-old ceremonial dance.  

 I am the young girl at the temple seeking a small kyat offering for a plastic bag the foreigner will use for the requisite removal of shoes before entering the temple.

I am the gleeful boy, cheeks aglow with joy, blowing up a balloon the foreigner gave me.

 I am the fisherman rowing with my foot and leg wrapped around the wooden oar on my shallow teak boat hoping for a good catch in my nets today.

I am the young woman sweating with dozens of others in the 105-degree sauna-like heat of a dark room with plastic shielding out any moisture, pounding gold leaf to wafer thinness for temple offerings, hour upon hour, for a pittance each day.

I am the new father, grinning a betel-red, toothy smile, holding up my infant son to be admired.

I am the aged restaurant owner anxious but afraid to speak out against the government repression to these tourists who inquire, in case a spy is around that will turn me in.

 I am the tour guide with enough pidgin English to show the foreigners all the temples, Buddhas and attractions of my richly diverse country.

I am the tender of the huge yellow boa constrictor kept in the temple for show and offerings.

 I am the young artist carving a life-size stone Buddha in the dust and heat, my hammer and chisel delicately creating the peacefulness and serenity of his enlightened face.

I am the supplicant kneeling before the Buddha, making an offering while praying that I can feed my family.

 I am the Buddha standing serenely in the temple, accepting the obeisance of the faithful, serving as a conduit for their prayers.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Belize and Lake Bacalar, Mexico just before COVID19 hit.


The islands off the coast of Belize are a tourist mecca for reef snorkeling and general relaxation. We visited in late February and early March before the uncertainties and devastation of COVID-19 hit the world.  It was a welcome respite from cares and worry in a laid back, safe environment among these welcoming people.

Floating above the rich reef life of Belize makes it easy to turn off the cares of the everyday world and just breathe and watch the marine life swim by. Turtles, rays, fish of all kinds, eels, conches, and coral make up the rich diversity here.

Nowhere seems safe now with the onset of COVID-19. Uncertainty and fear along with the closure of businesses and travel have created an emotional and physical response to this pandemic. Luckily Americans like people all over the world are putting self-quarantine and legislated stay at home isolation in place, trying to head the precautions the experts and local governments have given us.  We are lucky to have local government and state governors who have moved wisely and expeditiously to try and curb the spread early on.  Our current President defines moronic more than leadership as he spent the precious time we could have been planning in a state of denial, as he has denied science and experts throughout his career.

We set out on February 26th still believing that COVID-19 would be an Asian virus and might not have the same restrictive consequences in the US and other parts of the world. Thus most of our trip was worry-free as we only checked the New York Times about once a day because internet connectivity was not great.

However, as the days slipped by, we grew increasingly concerned about the news of the spread of the virus.  No one in Belize or for that matter Central America had been diagnosed with the disease.  Yet I found myself thinking about the coming impact on every restaurant, souvenir shop and tour/ excursion guide we interfaced with.  Most islanders are dependent on small businesses that support the tourist trade and this was their high season with spring break just around the corner.


Ambergris Caye and its small town of San Pedro is where we spent the first 5 days relaxing, doing yoga, renting a golf cart and reading.  The weather was overcast and windy at times so we did not reef snorkel. We had a lovely condo with access to a dock and a swimming pool.

Very few cars on the island...mostly golf carts

Our beach and pier with cabana.

San Pedro on Ambergris Caye has a friendly and congenial Hispanic population.  It is more developed and populated compared to much smaller Caye Caulker.

Caulker Caye was originally peopled by a slave ship that had run aground. We enjoyed Caye Caulker the most because it was smaller and much more intimate. The local people were friendly and had a real sense of ownership. Caye Caulker has not developed the way San Pedro has, yet still gets plenty of tourism.

 Seagulls use the docks as much as the people do and the gulls reign supreme.  They are picturesque and fine fisher birds.

People on Ambergris Caye work 6 days a week but on the 7th day they fish off the many piers and docks.

LAKE BACALAR, Quintana Roo, Mexico

We took a water taxi from San Pedro, Belize to the small port town of Chetumal. From there the 45 mile long inland Lake Bacalar is just 25 minutes away.

We rented a small cabana a 1.5 miles outside of Bacalar town on the lake with its own dock and cabana.  It was an Airbnb so we were the only ones there, besides a gardener and a wonderful Mexican woman Lily who came in to cook breakfast.  It was very isolated and peaceful.

No these are not a type of Quintana Roo tomato, nor is it a dance like the macarena. One of the interesting things we learned about Lake Bacalar is that this is where some of the oldest oxygen (life producing) elements still exist on this planet.  They are called estromatolitos in Spanish or stromatolites.  They are basically rocks covered in a type of underwater algae that live in freshwater and produce oxygen, in fact, the first oxygen every generated on this planet.

A little Wikipedia science class follows:
Stromatolites or stromatoliths are layered mounds, columns, and sheet-like sedimentary rocks that were originally formed by the growth of layer upon layer of cyanobacteria, a single-celled photosynthesizing microbe. Fossilized stromatolites provide records of ancient life on Earth.
So we were able to actually be where some of the first recorded life on earth was generated and existed. Maybe now we are immortal!

One of the outstanding things about Lake Bacalar besides its sheer size of 45 miles in length are the cenotes.  Cenotes are a natural sinkhole in the lake where a cave ceiling has collapsed. People like to swim and dive down into these cenotes. Our trip around the Lake by boat took us to many of these natural cenotes of which the Yucatan is famous for.  Considering they were the only source of water in the jungle for the Mayan civilization, they were held sacred by the Mayan people.
Other than a daily swim in the beautiful blue water of the Lake, lazy days of reading, meditating and walking to nearly eco-resort Hotel Rancho Encantado for meals or into town to walk around, we did 
little in Bacalar but relax.

Great wall art in Bacalar. Rob was unsure how to handle this.

Cabana on Lake Bacalar. Water was really this clear blue.

Caye Caulker

After 5 days in Lake Bacalar, we took a water Taxi from Chetumal back to Belize and this time to Caye Caulker.  We thought it would be more of the same type of island population as San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.  In fact, it was very different and very much a whole new experience.  Here we stayed at another Airbnb that was close to the shore and only a very short walk to the little town that supported the tourists with restaurants, dive shops, tour guides, and bicycle/golf cart rentals.  That pretty much sums up what there is to do on Caye Caulker.  That is unless you have a boat like the one below that you can go out in.  We did not.  

The shoreline is the same because you are out in the middle of the ocean.  There is not a beach in the typical sense.  Here again, there were piers and cabanas to fish from. All the small resorts were situated near the shoreline and the population is primarily in one little town. 

It wasn't until the last day of our trip at Caye Caulker that the weather cooperated for us to take a boat out on the reef to snorkel.  We got a great tour guide at ANDA DE WATA.  and went out with our guide and two young twenty-something girls that were fun.

We stopped at 5 different locations looking at both green and loggerhead turtles, reef fish of all kinds, rays, sharks and an abundance of reef life.

There was a huge conch shell graveyard where fishermen used to fish and clean conches leaving shells behind.  We also stopped at a shark feed site where the sharks did not have teeth but had strong sucking capabilities to suck the bait out of a PVC tube.

Green turtle on left and loggerhead on right

Amazing reef coral like this brain coral on the right.  The clarity of the water is obvious also.  I did not have contacts but could see the reef life well.  The rays floated by in regal harmony with their environment.

Our tour guide was a Belizean local in his twenties and was like a fish himself.  He was deft with diving and a great underwater photographer and is to credit for all these photos. He made every effort to accommodate us and actively participated in each of our snorkeling destinations. We wrote up a great review for him and gave him a nice tip for his capable and insightful tour.

Our guide John from Anda Da Wata Tours
So on March 10th, we flew home through Houston. Because we were wanting to see our grandson on his 2nd birthday we went into self-isolation given our contagion concern about traveling through an airport. On March 12-13th they started shutting down flights from Europe so we figured we had gotten home just in time. It has now been 20 days of isolation and I must admit it hasn't been that difficult because we were already in retirement mode and have just had to adjust our schedule for exercise, eating, reading, sleeping and getting things done.  This virus will change all our lives in many ways and will affect our society and global health for a long time to come. But we will get through this. 

We have great compassion for our health care workers of which our daughter is one, in the ICU with COVID patients.  We are concerned for all of those who have or will get COVID and sad for those who will lose family and loved ones to this pandemic.  May we all work together to get through this with cooperation, compassion and caring.  

Monday, January 6, 2020

Andalucia Spain: A History of Conquest

Andalucia, Spain: Sevilla and Granada

The dry plains of Andalucia reminded me of New Mexico where I grew up.  I could imagine how recognizable this semi-desert terrain felt to the Spanish conquistadors from Seville and Granada when finding themselves far away from their homeland across a vast ocean, they were comforted by a familiarity in their new surroundings: plains dotted with agave, yucca and cactus, mountains shimmering off in the distance and a life-sustaining river guiding them North.

As they made their way across the deserts of Mexico up into the Rio Grande valley these stalwart adventurers were driven by Glory, God and Gold.  Their greed inflamed them and their passion kept drawing them farther and farther afield in search of the magical, mythical city of Cibola where their superhuman efforts would be rewarded on this earth.

The legion of padres that accompanied the Conquistadors were on a new Crusade to convert the resident savages to Christianity. Both conquistadors and missionaries were aglow with the recent Christian triumphs over the opposing Moorish Islamic faith that had so just been scourged from their homeland by their Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel.  After seven centuries of rule in what is today southern Spain, the Moors were driven back to their African homeland.

It is the modern-day Spanish cities of Seville and Granada that we explored on this trip. Andalucia embodies the ancient struggle between Christian and Islamic faiths. The differences are reflected in their history, culture, art, architecture, people, and lifestyle.  Yet today one finds a melding of both these divergent world views lives deeply rooted in the soul of the people.

As elsewhere throughout the world the practice of superimposition, layering and building your iconic religious monuments atop those of the vanquished, is what makes the architecture here so rich.
Great Christian Cathedral in Sevilla

Ghirlada Tower left by the Islamic Moors

Bells in the Ghirlada Tower

Thus we have the classic religious superimposition at the great Cathedral in Sevilla where Ferdinand and Isabelle held court and conquered in the name of Christianity. When the Moors were pushed out of Spain the church started building a monument to their victory and Christian religious glory in the great Cathedral right on top of the previous Moorish mosque.  As the Giralda Tower was the tower the Islamic musseins did their high pitched entreaty several times a day calling the faithful to prayer.  The musseins built the tower so they could ride a mule up the circular tower path to the top.  The Catholic Church decided to leave the Ghirlada Tower an exquisite piece of architecture, a monumental 25 story structure and use it as the Cathedral's bell tower.  So you have the fusion of Christian and Islamic faith at the great Catedral in Sevilla.  

Geometric crosses in part of the gold ceiling in the Cathedral

Because the original art is often incorporated into the newer building you see this rich intertwining of cultures.  Yet two more divergent art and architectural styles would be hard to find. The icon rich cathedrals and churches of Christianity are gilded with the riches of the gold mined in the Spanish colonies. Saints and the visages of Jesus, Mary and the Holy Family are draped in gold and embued with a depth of suffering that is of this world and can only be relieved by the safe passage to heaven in the world beyond.  Heaven forbid you fail to live a Christian life and perish forever in the fires of hell or perhaps get stuck in limbo for eternity.

Gold covered altar of the Cathedral
The massive amount of gold and wealth the Church acquired from the Spanish colonies is on display here in Sevilla.  Because the Spanish did not want to have to defend a port city on the Atlantic from marauders trying to steal this gold, they held it inland in Sevilla where the boats could come up a river and the river could be defense with towers built on both sides of the Guadalquivir River and a chain that could be pulled taut to stop any hostile ships with ill marauding intentions.  One of those towers still stands on the river in Sevilla and it used to be where the wealth of the colonies was first stored before being dispensed to the Crown treasury and the Church coffers.
Saints deified in gold

Sevilla Cathedral Main Altar

One of the towers that protected the Guadalquivir River in Seville where gold was stored.

Santa Maria prototype of ship Columbus sailed on. These were SMALL ships. 
One of many Gold Crowns encrusted with gems
Cathedral Gardens from the top of the Giralda Tower

The Islamic art of the Moors is as devoid of icons as Christianity is rich with them. Islam art and architecture features script from the Koran and the mesmerizing designs of repeated patterns that draw the eye, soothe the mind and lift the soul.  Symmetry and geometric designs are taken to artistic heights unparalleled.

The Alcazar is the Moorish Fortress built near the Cathedral in Sevilla that was the home of the Moorish King until Ferdinand and Isabel dispelled him in their 1492 conquest.  The beautiful and rich detail of the carved marble and sandstone is jawdropping.    

The courtyards consist of one royal arch after another and exquisite geometric and repeating patterns. The enclosed courtyards are created with peaceful gardens and water features.  

My favorite photograph from the Alcazar was taken in the underground pools that the Moors used for bathing. The women could go to these baths and not be bothered or exposed to men.  They had a rigorous schedule when men and women could  bathe and luxuriate in the peaceful environs.


Washington Irving was one of the first American to go to Granada and live in the sequestered town quarters of the Alhambra during the 1800s.  Thus his writing of the book The Alhambra.  The town sits atop a town of tradesmen and villagers and was built as a Moorish fortress to show the power and presence of the rulers and their Islamic faith. The artwork within is truly spectacular and speaks to the artistry of the Islamic craftsmen and artists.

Exquisite carvings in marble and plaster adorn the ceilings and walls of the Alhambra

Symmetrical Gardens  and fountains offer respite from the  heat

The Alhambra is truly an impressive city and fortress within high impregnable walls. It includes the amazing Palace of the Nazrids  (the Emir's house), beautiful symmetrical gardens, villagers/caretakers' homes and all the resources needed in case it was necessary to close it off from attackers.

Thus it is hard to imagine that Isabel and Ferdinand's troops successfully evicted the resident Moorish Emir finally in January 1492. Internal fighting and lack of leadership from the new emir Boabdil weakened the Moors.  Boabdil had once been a vassal of Ferdinand and Isabel's (trying to play both sides) until he could no longer do so. The Christian victory called the Reconquista ended this 10-year war with the desperate Moorish emirs economically strangulating the local Granadans with taxes and the dominance of advanced Spanish bombards and cannon artillery. Queen Isabella of Castile was the source of most of the funds and artillery and Ferdinand of Aragon contributed warships as well as some funds. She clearly dominated in this conquest and visited the battlefields often supporting the troops. This victory cemented the Ferdinand and Isabel union and combined the Castile and Aragon regions under their kingship.

This Catholic victory and expulsion of the Moors joined the regions of Castile (Isabel) and Granada
(Ferdinand) and most of southern Andalusia. It serendipitously occurred just in time to have Isabel and  Ferdinand no longer involved in an expensive war so they could take a financial bet on an Italian Christopher Columbus.

Columbus proposed to find a Western route to the Indies. The Queen and King turned him down the first time but after some of their advisors convinced them that they had little to lose and a lot to gain they agreed to his journey.  The details are set forth in their agreement the Capitulation of Santa Fe which allowed that Italian Columbus would sail under the title of Admiral of the Sea in the name of Spain. It further stipulated he was to be granted one-tenth of the riches from the explorations.  Columbus' tomb in the Cathedral in Sevilla, as well as the Carrara marble tombs of Ferdinand and Isabel in a chapel next to the great  Cathedral in Granada are huge tourist attractions.

Their bet paid off in untold riches and plunder from the discovery of the West Indies and later the bloody Spanish conquest of much of South America. The riches of plundered gold poured into the Towers of Sevilla where Ferdinand and Isabel held court.  Sevilla was chosen as a strategic location to hold the riches of the New World.  It was not on the Atlantic coastline which would leave it open to marauders, but was further inland and could be defended by two towers built with a heavy chain that linked them. The chain could be pulled up to deter admittance of any ships to the city and the riches held there could more easily be defended.

Gold Ceiling of the Cathedral in Seville

                          One of the Towers protecting Sevilla and the riches stored there still stands.

Bodegas and Bull Fights

While we did not see any bullfights when in Spain, we were regular frequenters of their many bodegas ( bars and restaurants).  We were there long enough to develop some favorites and even be recognized by the camareros (waiters) and bartenders.  The wonderful energy of the neighborhood bodega and its bar and restaurant with seating usually both outside and inside make them the social center of every hood in Spain.  They are places to enjoy the conviviality of friendship or just hang out and while away part of the day/night.

The waiters are professionals and proudly serve both local regulars and the abundance of tourists who frequent these leisurely hangouts.  We had a favorite bodega just at the top of our street where our AirBnb was and made it a habit to get there daily.  Of course wine/beer is served instead of water and it is always accompanied by tapas, the small appetizer size plates Andalucia is famous four.  

Famous fighting bulls decorate the walls of a favorite bodega

Bar Estrella Restaurant at the end of our street in old Sevill
Making friends with the waiters and bartenders

The bullring was empty so why not?

The Tommie Tippy cup took a tour of Sevilla


It would not have been a visit to southern Spain without enjoying the beauty of the Flamenco dance which embodies the heritage of joy, angst, rhythm, music, sweat, sensuous flirtation and color that typifies the history of these peoples.  Put yourself here as a young romantic in search of love or even as a woman caring for a passel of children, a laborer in the fields or just some local trying to make a living and feed the family.   All appreciated this vigorous and sensual dance of the paisanos.  

The depth of feeling that the Flamenco dancers both men and women portray in their rhythmic dance is powerful and the voices that sing the music are both sorrow-filled and resonantly joyful in turn.  I enjoyed the Flamenco as the true musical and dance heritage of this amazing country.  It takes years of practice and dedication and the dancers and musicians become life long friends in their pursuit of this passion.  The dancers at the Flamenco performance we saw, also stopped at the local Bar Estrella before their performances so one got a feeling of how Flamenco is woven into the fabric of their lives:  Work, dance, eat, drink, play, enjoy friends and do it all over again.  We should take their lead on this.