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Friday, 22 November 2013

Food for Thought: A Taste of Myanmar

When I started this blog I imagined it to be a space where I would not only share recipes, but also rêveries/musings about whatever inspired me. So far I have filled these virtual pages with food, food and more food. Time to add some food for thought into the mix, starting by my first impressions of this beautiful country I now find myself inhabiting - Myanmar (previously known as Burma).

I have been living in Myanmar for two months now. It's incredible how time has the ability to simultaneously speed up and slow down, giving me the impression that I have been here for ages, and at other times that my plane landed just yesterday. These photos will hopefully give you a taste of the colors and spirit of Yangon.

I knew nothing about this country before my bearded canadian significant other was sent here to work, after a few months we decided I would move out there to join him. I was intrigued by this unknown place, this country that most people - including myself - know so very little about. So I packed up my belongings and the cat, and off we set on this new adventure in the heart of South East Asia. 

Tropical fruit heaven
Looking out of the window as the plane started its descent into Yangon airport I saw stretches of green luscious countryside, soaked with water from the monsoon season so much so that it looked like the earth beneath me was a giant sponge. I could make out the tips of golden pagodas shimmering here and there in the distance, lakes curled up in the midst of the sprawled out city. And green.. green everywhere, a good sign, I thought, a city intertwined with nature is my kind of city. No towering skyscrapers like her big sister Bangkok, even from above Yangon looked like a city small enough to make a home in and big enough to endlessly explore over the next year of my life. The plane landed, I was smiling. 

The wave of muggy heat hit me in the face the second I stepped out of the plane. One of my first impressions, was the genuine friendliness of the people I encountered and the seemingly peaceful atmostphere of the place. Over the next few days I was agreeably surprised by how welcome and safe I felt wondering around the city. As a woman whenever I arrive in a new country I put my sensors out to get a feel of how people react to me as a foreigner, and as a woman - in many places I have felt uneasy but here in Yangon I have not once felt in the least bit intimidated, more than I can say about pretty much anywhere else I've been to, including home. 

A market scene from Yangon
Another fact that struck me about Yangon was that it is so vegan-friendly. Being in a country where I am not regarded as a mad person because I am vegan is refreshing! Local restaurants are usually outside terrasses sheltered by tin roofs, rudimentary plastic chairs and tables thrown around, waiters running to and fro balancing small dishes of pickled tea leaf salad, potato and tomato salads, mustard leaves, curries, trays of black tea, freshly-squeezed lime juices, coconut puddings etc. Less appetizing is the betel nut that the men chew on constantly here, spitting out its blood-red colored juice onto the floor, their teeth and gums stained (like I'd imagine Vampires' would be!) - you will see the red stains on the pavements everywhere you go - this habit is as accepted and as pervasive as smoking is in France! Yuck.

My Yangon life so far can be summarized as a collection of small simple pleasures, strolling around the markets, cooking, getting back to blogging, meditating, meeting new interesting people, and soaking up the colors, movement and novelties of life in this wonderfully unknown place.  It's been a process learning to live without the usual structure of full-time work, not easy at times - we are so conditioned to be doing doing doing all the time. I am thankful to have the opportunity to slow down, appreciate my time and learn to be rather than to do.

Banana Tree - took me a while to figure out what these were!
There is a strong sense of spirituality here, tangible wherever you go - offerings can be found on every street corner, week end family outings are trips to the pagodas, which are lively bustling places of worship, very different from the solemnity of churches back home. As well as through spirituality, Myanmar's unique and diverse culture is apparent in how people dress - even in modern Yangon very few people have adopted western style clothing, men and women alike wear colorful Longyis (long wrap around skirts) and each State has its own fabric patterns. The women wear thanaka on their faces, a yellow paste taken from tree bark, used traditionally as a sun protector but now worn widely for esthetic reasons. Women wear their traditional dress, long silky hair decorated with jasmine flowers, and yellow makeup with pride, no matter their age or background - finally a place where people haven't all adopted the craze of mainstream high street brands. Will this change now that Myanmar has opened its long-closed doors to international trade and businesses? Time will tell. 

A woman praying at the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Needless to say that Myanmar is a complex place, as anyone who knows about the country is no doubt aware. I am very conscious that my day to day experience of this country stands in stark contrast with its simmering social and political tensions, its divisive and dark history. With 135 ethnic groups, over 30 anti-Government armed forces, natural disasters and internal conflicts, this place is in reality far from peaceful. But I am no political analyst, and I will simply share what I see and experience in this fascinating place, and hope that as it reaches a turning point in its history, opening up to the outside world at last, and with democratic elections around the corner, this country is setting out on a path that will eventually lead to positive and lasting change for its people.


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