“I’ll have this ice cream float”
I pointed to a picture on a menu while a waiter to my order before wearily slumping into the comfy cushioned seating of a quasi-upscale restaurant in Myanmar. Soon, this would be the location of an important personal lesson on gratitude.
Let me provide a little background for those of you not familiar with Myanmar, also historically known as Burma. Myanmar has one of the longest running military dictatorships in the world, and its oppression of their citizens and human rights violations and are well known. But things are changing. Recently, their most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, finally was allowed to leave the country and accept the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed upon her two decades ago. Hopefully, this is a sign of more good changes coming.
Last year, I had the privilege to visit this economically isolated, and thus culturally isolated, country. There were some small hurdles to get in, but it wasn’t particularly difficult, like entering Bhutan or Tibet from a western border. Once inside, I found out from other travellers that the hurdles were mostly superficial. Many, in fact, took advantage of the disorganized tourist tracking system and overstayed their visit by months to illegally do volunteer work.
Random events led me to show up in July, when the country was still baking in the simmering midsummer heat. Perhaps you’ve experienced extremely hot, humid weather at some time or another, whether it be in New York or Hong Kong, but Myanmar’s heat is different – since it’s a developing country, there’s very little escape, making one very aware of it at all times. Aside from a cooling break at the famed high-altitude Inle Lake, air conditioning could not be found – not at my hostel, not in any shops or in the taxis. To top it off, frequent brownouts also meant that often times, I didn’t even have a fan. The motor vehicles, all of which seemed to be at minimum, 30 years in age, only aggravated the humidity by creating a thick haze of pollution from their unfiltered patchwork exhausts. Needless to say, my appetite came to a standstill in the weather.
In the arid ancient city of Bagan, the heat was so intense that the horses wouldn’t move during the daytime, and so I would wait until 5pm before wandering out into the valley of temples. I killed time by either sitting in random caves and temples, or chatting