Face The Sun: Let There Be Light!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are exclusively those of its author, and are not in any way meant to reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

Past Travelogues.

Finland, Estonia, Petersburg

Kirovograd, Ukraine


Tirana, Albania

Macedonia & Romania

Budapest to Bucharest

Balkans and Poland.

Christiania, Copenhagen.

Northern Norway

Northern Finland


Kashgar, briefly

More to come, Inshallah, as I go through old paper travel journals.

The DC experience, archived.

July '05
June '05
December '05
October '04
More to come should interesting things happen to me. Ever.

Blatent Plagiarism

The nation's largest chain bookstore has indicated that, due to lack of consumer interest, it has stopped selling books.
--Frederick Raphael, The Glittering Prizes

I feel this is the equivalent of a surgeon, skipping through a radiology department singing, 'I don't have cancer, I don't have cancer!'
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

Mum is crying with her faced turned away from me, gulping and honking like an injured seal. And I'm rolled up in the back seat wishing the old man would stop the car and make her walk. That or buy her a fish.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

I love it when well-educated women sweaar -- the words regain their original power and meaning when delivered unexpectedly with so much poise.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

She lived with her mother, who looked like an old labrador, and an old labrador.
--Will Self, Great Apes

When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God sitting on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Quality is merely the distribution aspect of Quantity.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

...In the frank brilliance of the bright sun, which, as we all know, is the friend of heroes.
--Jose Saramago, All the Names

He stuttered so badly that you could go out and buy yourself a chocolate bar while he was wrestling with an initial p or b; he would never try to bypass the obstacle by switching to a synonym, and when the explosion finally did occur, it convulsed his whole frame and sprayed the interlocutor with triumphant saliva.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

To Stand on Jericho's Walls and Face the Sun.

Friday, February 27, 2009

I prefer the term "punch it out," but Obama uses "fist bump," so that's what I went with. "Madame Secretary, can we fist bump?" "Oh YEAH!" she responded, with great enthusiasm.

And the rest was history.

Posted by Dakota on 6:19 AM link |

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Last night I met up with some people from the Polish Embassy for drinks. There was a Cypriot and a fistful of Greeks there as well. About halfway through our time together, one of the Poles excitedly asked -- do you know who you remind me of?

"Matt Damon?" I responded hopefully.

"No, no no no," she said. "You are JUST like that squirrel from Ice Age -- the one who is crazy about getting acorn!"

The Greeks and Cypriot didn't hesitate before vocalizing their agreement: just like the squirrel.

"It's not bad thing," she said. "He is cute squirrel."

Fan. Tastic.

Edited to add this side-by-side comparison, brought to you by Quixote:

Posted by Dakota on 2:57 AM link |

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In preparation for my grand return to the United States in a scant six months, I've begun updating my internet dating portfolio. Doing so naturally involves a lot of "research," which itself involves obsessively reading other people's portfolios and then whining to my friends that I'm not attractive enough. But with six months to hammer away on the portfolio, I'm hoping I can make it brilliant enough to snare at least a few people before they realize that my body type isn't actually "athletic and toned" as I've selected, but rather is "lumpy," which wasn't a choice on the match.com menu.

In researching other people's portfolios, I stumbled across one that included the following lines, which are brilliant but which I probably can't steal outright, since we'll be on the same internet dating website.

I'm particularly fond of parenthetical statements and stage directions.

When given the choice between cheese or chocolate, I tend to have an aneurysm.

I think Venn diagrams are astounding graphical representations and should be used whenever possible.

That's the sort of brilliance I'm looking for. Six months: we can do this, people.

Posted by Dakota on 8:29 AM link |

Monday, February 09, 2009

A quick post, on the off chance there's any concern, to say that the massive, enormous fire (described to me as "seriously like 9/11") currently taking place at the Mandarin Oriental is a full 4 kilometers south of me, and I am thus not affected by it.

Posted by Dakota on 9:47 AM link |

Friday, February 06, 2009

A skippable linguistics sidenote piggybacking off that last post: on the off chance you're wondering where all the extra R's come from -- it stems from British English and their ridiculous spelling habits. Educated British English ("received pronunciation," if you will) is technically non-rhotic; that is, r's aren't pronounced unless they come before a vowel. Think of the British pronunciation of "four" or "New York" or "park" or any other word with a non-initial R -- the r's are dropped. Where the R used to be, the vowel is lengthened, and the same thing is true in their romanization systems that scatter r's willy nilly where there aren't any -- it's Myanmaa, not Myanmar or even Myanma: the last vowel is held, and the Brits back in the day flagged that with an R.

The same ridiculousness appears to have been applied to the semi-standard Thai romanization system in decently widespread use -- Khao Sarn road, for example, should be Khao Saan. But the Brits didn't have a hand in Thailand back when she was still coasting as Siam, so I don't know where they got it.

Excitingly, Koreans appear to have inflicted the system on themselves for no apparent reason. Thus, while a huge number of Koreans have the surname "Pak," they romanize it as "Park." The nuts and bolts of Korean romanization baffle me, though, and it's still unclear why millions of people with the surname "Yi" in Korean go by "Lee" when they're in the States.

Posted by Dakota on 11:28 PM link |
Here's something unexpected: the Burmese language lacks the letter R. Odd, since it seems to crop up all the time in place names like Burma and Myanmar and the Irriwady delta and Rangoon. But no, no R to speak of. Burma is actually Bamaa (so named for the Bamaa majority -- the name fails to take into account the other ethnic minorities who live there) while Myanmar is really Myanmaa -- the dodgy national airline is Myanma air. The Irriwady river, which cuts straight through the country, all the way to the coast that was devastated by Cyclone Nargis, is actually called the Ayeyawady, which locals pronounce just as Iyyewady.

Rangoon was re-romanized to Yangon (the Y is actually closer to a soft zh -- something like a light Zh'angon) in the same brush stroke that turned Burma into Myanmar back in 1989. The ruling body that made the changes was the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or the SLORC -- which, in my book, holds the all time record for Most Awesomely Evil Sounding Dictatorship Name ever. They're still in power, but on the advice of an American PR firm changed their name to something disappointingly less evil sounding: the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC.

So Rangoon (she'll always be Rangoon to me -- call me old fashioned): a pleasant little town on the banks of the Irrawady. It's a bit dusty, but leafy green and full of broad avenues and narrow side streets.

First impression: Burma smells incredible. The whole of Rangoon smells like frying onions and street snacks. It's like everyone decided simultaneously to make pakoras. Everywhere you turn, there's an old woman selling something delicious -- cumin-studded fried dough, samosas stuffed with a citrusy onion-potato mixture, fried coconut-filled sandwichy-type things.

And there's curry everywhere. The Burmese are big on roadside eating, sitting on those tiny ridiculous Vietnam-style stools anywhere they can fit a table. They prefer Indian-style curry, thick and oily and served with rice, and if you still have rice left when your curry bowl is empty, they'll give you more gravy for free. My boss declared that Burma, sandwiched between the culinary wonderlands of both India and Thailand, had somehow managed to come up with the worst food in all of Asia. I think he's crazy: Burmese food is mostly Indian with just a hint of a Thai accent, a tinge of citrus to lighten things up. I can't get enough. (Also, so long as Mongolia continues to exist, there can be no competition for "worst food in Asia." The title's been won, hands down).

The only food I've hated thus far was Burmese hot sauce. It's blazingly spicy, which I love, but the base ingredient is river shrimp pounded into a smooth paste and then left to ferment. It tastes like spicy, rotting seafood. It's revolting.

My hotel was just off a two thousand year old pagoda, and just off said pagoda is a line of freelance astrologers and palm readers, all of them with signs and hand-lettered charts of palms and constellations and what have you. Having already established the awesome power of the Burmese astrologists -- recall that they arranged to have the capital city moved to a more auspicious location -- there was no way I was turning down a Burmese palm reading. There was a woman with a lazy eye who looked downright mystical and could almost undoubtedly see the future, but she had a line of people waiting for her and it wasn't clear from her sign that she spoke English.

I picked a a short largely-bald and semi-mustachioed gentleman named Gainonigyiton (or some such incomprehensible thing). According to Gainigyiton, my palm reads as follows:

1. Apparently, my palm shows an affinity with Venus, which by extension means that I have a tendency to easily weather problems, am generally outgoing in social situations and am comfortable at public speaking. So far so good, Mr Palm Reader.

2. I have a tendency to spend and not save, and I have a predilection for visiting other countries. (Half right: I save like a beast, and I feel like the whole "you like going to other countries" thing was kind of a gimme, all things considered).

3. I will be unlucky in love. Many women love me, but I have a tendency not to love them back. (Nailed it out of the park, Gainonigyiton!)

4. Having established that I will be unlucky in love, I can expect to be married twice -- once to a woman younger than me, and once to a woman my age. (Don't hold your breath there, Palmy).

5. Despite being unlucky in love, I can expect to have a lover by the end of this year. He didn't specifically mention Match.com, but I'm pretty sure it was implied.

6. My life line is optimistically long but poops out short of spectacular. I should plan on dying at age 87. I should expect good health until I'm 42, but then high blood pressure will kick in, but as long as I can hold on until I'm 55, I'll come into some money. Until then, I need to work on saving more. Thanks, life coach.

7. My fortune line is -- and I quote -- "short and weak." This means that I have bad luck and can generally expect to be poor. Fortunately, for a scant 2000 kyats, he was willing to sell me an amulet candle that I could burn at a pagoda to increase my fortune. I didn't realize I had to decline this option before he started carving things into it specifically for me, which then resulted in a sort had-to-purchase type situation. He carved a cross into it, because he assumed I'm Christian (all white people are Christian, was the thought). I told him that I'm not Christian, that I don't have a religion, and he told me: "no, you are Christian." Maybe it was in my palm somewhere.

So I took the candle to the biggest pagoda in all of Rangoon, the Shwedagon pagoda, and duly lit it in the same place that other people were lighting amulet-looking candles. It was put out twice by the wind and once by the flapping wings of a pigeon that had just burned off several of it's feathers by attempting to eat the wick out of a still-flaming oil lamp. I'm not sure what that means for my fortune line and future prosperity, but I have a feeling that it can't be good.

Posted by Dakota on 11:14 PM link |
The Burmese Embassy in Beijing rejected my visa application because I had no Chinese visa in my tourist passport, and as such they couldn't be sure I'd come back. They offered me a tourist visa in my diplomatic passport, but required a diplomatic note (which is a pain in the tail) and four days processing time, which I didn't have to spare.

On my Burmese visa application in Bangkok, I listed my profession as "diplomat," because I figured that if I wrote something else and they found out, I'd be tossed into a Burmese prison -- which might be fun for a little while, if I spoke Burmese (I've never been to prison anywhere, and I have no doubt that my fellow prisoners would have good stories). But aside from a mangled 'thank you', I don't speak Burmese, so diplomat on the application form it was.

They put my application on indefinite hold while they cabled back to Rangoon for approval. I wrote Burma off as dead figuring I'd try again in May, and began debating whether to take a bus to northern Laos or a flight to Bangladesh. I had my sights on Dhaka when the Burmese Embassy called and said my visa was approved. 24 hours later I had my visa in hand. 36 hours later, I was on a flight to Rangoon.

The flight into Rangoon is directly over rice paddies. The airport itself is only about five kilometers from downtown, but Burma is an impossible rural country -- some 80 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. There was a brief kerfuffle at customs about my profession (quoth my seatmate on the plane, a 60 ish year old British woman of Finnish decent: "why, in god's name, were you honest? ANYTHING is better than that. Make something up -- cleaner, bus driver, McDonalds manager, anything but that"), and despite having a visa, I was braced for a quick deportation. They waved me through without issue.

Some initial thoughts on Burma:

This above all: I had no idea Burma would feel like a South Asian nation. It's deeply Buddhist, shares its longest border with Thailand and is firmly a member of ASEAN. It never occured to me that the colonial British past might give it a flavor more like India than like Thailand.

It does feel an awful lot like India, though, albeit in a Buddhist pagoda-flavored sort of way. The way everyone wants to be helpful, the way they approach you on the street and just start talking, the food and the street-snacks, and just the general air of the place: it's got British colony written all over it. It's totally subcontinent.

I love it here.

Here's the other thing, though: in 2003, the Burmese banking sector collapsed. That same year, Western nations imposed sanctions on Burma that caused all the international banks to pack up shop and head elsewhere. This means that there is no functioning banking sector whatsoever in the entire nation of Burma. That fact particularly sucks for Burmese people and businesses, all of whom are crippled by a lack of easy capital. But it also sucks for travellers on the ground: aside from the cash you're carrying, there is absolutely no recourse to additional funds. There are no ATMs, no credit card advances, no places to cash a check or wire yourself money. If you run out of cash, you're completely screwed, period.

I tend to spend very little money when I travel. I like the five-dollar fleabag hotels, have no problems on long-haul buses without air conditioning and love street food more than anything in the universe. But I also tend not to think about money at all -- at the end of the day, I don't care how much money I spend. Travelling is what I save for.

The guidebook recommended 400 bucks for a two week trip on the cheap. I came into Burma with 300 bucks in US dollars and about forty bucks in Thai Baht. The baht are snake oil: no one wants them. That left 300 bucks for 8 days, or $37.50 a day. On my first day, I spent nearly 60 bucks. On the second day, I spent 45 dollars.

Panic ensued.

I started hastily setting aside money in various places -- 10 bucks sequestered in my passport for the mandatory airport tax, 20 bucks in a side pocket of my bag for the bus ticket back to Rangoon at the end of the trip. I sketched out back of the envelope calculations, over and over, debating if I could afford a samosa, a second bottle of water, a taxi ride.

I'm now back on budgetary track, having passed most major expenses in the trip and still in possession of enough cash to keep me in hotels and chapati for the next few days. But money has been an unexpectedly major preoccupation of this trip. It's particularly hard since in a place as poor as Burma, I'm incapable of turning down beggars: I've given at least something to every single one that's approached me, but every time I do, I panic a little bit that I'll get stuck on the outskirts of Mandalay with absolutely no means of getting back to Rangoon -- much less on to Bangkok.

And here's the other thing about money: I am wracked with guilt that part of the money I'm spending here is getting back to the Burmese Government. I'm keeping an obsessive running tally of hotel costs (there's a 10 percent tax on hotels), entrance fees to major sites and pagodas, and anything else that may accrue money to the Junta. (I just typed a long paragraph spelling out point blank my feelings on the junta, but disclaimer at the top of the blog or otherwise, I think it best to keep it to myself).

I am only staying in small, family-run hotels, eating at roadside stands and tiny restaurants at which grandma is clearly doing the cooking, mom and dad are taking orders and the kids are serving and clearing plates. I'm handing money over wholesale to the Burmese people whenever possible, and avoiding anything that the Government has a hand in -- I'm not drinking beer (Myanma Beer Company is a joint venture government enterprise), for example, or taking trains or other forms of public transportation, all of which, down to the local city buses, benefit the junta, 5 measly kyats at a time.

I am still wracked with guilt. The fact that the Burmese clearly want tourists to come doesn't matter to me: I had to fork over 810 Thai baht -- 23 bucks -- to the Burmese Government for a visa, and that money is haunting me. The fact that [an unnamed foreign government] hands over well over 600 million dollars per year to the Burmese for natural gas doesn't lessen my guilt at handing them 23 bucks and change for a visa: it's more than they would've gotten if I hadn't come.

When all is said and done, I plan to give double what I give to the Burmese Government to a reputable charity that works inside Burma. Does that make it ok? I don't know: still wracked with guilt.

Posted by Dakota on 3:20 AM link |
Current Location:
The People's Republic of China.

Stop by any time: everyone's welcome.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem to Be Born

Comments and requests for dates should be directed to email.

And here I am.

And for all you random folks out there whom I don't know, for the love of god, email me. I'm abroad, know no one, and look forward to hearing from you. I'm especially looking at YOU, whomever YOU are who's Facing The Sun all the way from Kenya. And Sweden. And Canada. And whatnot.

Books Tackled, 2006:

1. Jarhead, Anthony Swofford
2. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington
3. A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
4. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, Anonymous
5. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, Dawn Prince-Hughes

This year's movies, in chronological order:

1. Kung Fu Hustle
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Pi: Faith in Chaos
4. My Big Fat Independent Movie
5. The Winter Guest
6. Voices in Wartime
7. What Dreams May Come
8. Farewell My Concubine
9. The Ring
10. Like Water for Chocolate
11. Sahara

Foreign Service Officers by day, Bloggers by day as well.

The Diplodocus
(Islamabad, Pakistan).

The Permanent Mission of Joshie
(Zagreb; Libyaward).

Prince Roy
(Chennai; Taiwanward).

Sue and not You
(Tbilisi, Georgia).

Life on the Mekong
(Vientiane, Laos).

FSO Globe Trotter
(Lahore, Pakistan).

Vice Consul: Diplomatically Transformed
(New Delhi, India).

Adventures in Good Countries

Our Man in Tirana
(Tirana, Albania).

Anne's Blog
(Kazakhstan; Greeceward).

(Bogota, Colombia).

Furnish Worldwide

Tasman's World
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

(Lome, Togo).

World Adventurers
(Seoul, Korea).

Aaron Martz

A for Adventure
(Chennai, India).

The Excellent Adventures of Nickie P
(Paris, France).

Permanently Disco
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

Consul At Arms
(Kingston, Jamaica).

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