Easily one of the funnest experiences I have had, Holi is the Hindu festival of colors. Celebrating the beginning of spring, Holi was originated in India but has spread all over the world and is especially popular in Southeast Asia. I was lucky to be invited to join the Myanmar Association of Indians at their annual Holi festival in People's Park in Yangon. I wasn't sure what to expect but I showed up giddy at the idea of a free-for-all carnival of colors. I jumped in the fun and "played Holi" with a group of 50 or so others where we chased, danced, a laughed as everyone threw colored powder at one another. Everyone at the event was covered in the bright colors as we frolicked around the park. Water sprayed everywhere from a makeshift fountain, individuals wielding hoses, and children squealing with delight as they refilled their water guns. Group games were organized, pass-the-hat, smash the pot, jump rope, collect-the-ribbons, all thoroughly enjoyed (my team won - go yellow!). The whole event was a blast as I progressively got more and more colorful; I left that afternoon with new friends, an ear-to-ear grin, and covered head to toe in color.
Only once a year do lions dance through the streets of Yangon. They dance to celebrate Chinese New Year, the festival that marks the turning of the Chinese calendar. Since January, we had been looking forward to participating in some of the festivities to mark one of Southeast Asia's biggest holidays. When the big day finally rolled around I was giddy with excitement at the uncertainty of what I would witness. The difficulty of finding out any information on any large event in Yangon meant that we did not know what was happening or when. All we knew was that it was Chinese New Year and we were headed to Chinatown.
*For video footage of the Lion Dance scroll to the bottom of the page*
Our 'go with the flow' attitudes paid off because as soon as we got downtown we heard drumming. We followed the loud banging and clashing of cymbals to the entrance of a hotel where there was a large crowd gathered. In the center we spotted our very first lion! It was a spectacular site, fluffy purple puffs were accompanied by gold and silver sequence that sparkled as the lion danced around. It was controlled by two extremely skillful and acrobatic performers, martial artists who train long and hard to receive the privilege of performing. A troupe of supporters from the same martial arts studio accompanied the lions in their dance. This lion was visiting the hotel in a customary tradition that involves performing a special dance called Cai Qing which means "plucking the greens."
In this dance the lion must "pluck" greens from an area in the establishment. It stalks the greens like a cat in hunt and then eats them a bit before spitting them out (see the ground of the picture below). Along with the greens the lion will also "pluck" a red envelop which customarily contains money to compensate for the performance. The purpose of this is to bring good fortune to the establishment for the coming year.
After our serendipitous find, we made the short trip over to Chinatown (which is between 20th and 18th street) to make our first official stop at the Chinese temple. I'm not sure how many Chinese temples there are in Yangon but I do know that this one is the largest and grandest.
Bonus points if you recognize what the containers with sticks in them (right side of the picture set above) are ^ . If you don't know or don't remember, check out when we visited the Chinese temple in Bago and our friends Alex and Meme showed us how to use the traditional Chinese fortune telling sticks.
As we were approaching the temple, we could smell it before we could see it. When we arrived there was a cloudy, smokey atmosphere that was so strong Kim had to stay outside. Come to find out, it was coming from all of these HUGE incense spirals. There were hundreds of these hanging up inside and outside of the temple, each one accompanied by a small purple tag. I couldn't read what was written on the tags but my guess is that it was a person's or family's name that donated to the temple.
The main section of the festival was held on Sinn O Dann street and featured a Lion Dance competition. Although the signs said that there were Dragon dances we did not see any during our time. We were lucky enough to see a lion practicing his dance. This was exciting for me because I was able to get up close and grab these great shots of the lion in motion!
We took a few hours as the day turned into night to wander the streets of downtown with our hearts set on our usual search: the quest for new, tasty food. This time we were hoping to try some special cuisine for the Chinese New Year celebration, maybe some Chinese food (?) but with no avail we settled for a tasty bowl of our favorite shan noodles instead.
It's not just the lighting here, the picture above is of an actual golden watermelon. Bellow is a stall of small bite-sized candies that were all over the place during the New Year Festival.
We left the vibrance of the night market and returned to the main festival to wait for the competition to begin. Sure to arrive early, we grabbed some seats (tiny plastic stools) on the sidelines and watched the small street fill in with more people than I could have ever imagined could fit in the space. After a long wait, a parade of all the competitors, some sort of performance that I think was the lion performers paying their respects to the temple or the association or someone, the dance finally began.
There are many legends about how the lion dances began, my favorite involves a fierce creature named "Nain" who liked to terrorize villages and kidnap children. One year, a lion was stalking near a village when the Nain creature appeared. The lion attacked the Nain and frightened it away. After the lion also retreated, the villagers decided to make a costume of a lion to scare the Nain away if it were ever to return. The dance is accompanied by loud banging, music, and fireworks to continue to frighten the Nain. Since this the dance became a yearly ritual, the word Nain has become the Chinese word for Year. Happy New Year everyone!
The day of love has arrived and it is very apparent in Yangon. Shop fronts with heart decorations, bakeries with pretty cookies, red roses for sale on every corner, lovers holding hands as they walk down the sidewalk, and restaurants filled with couples enjoying special treats. Although this may sound like any western city around Valentines Day, I am speaking of the sights I saw walking around Yangon today. The young generation of Burmese just love to celebrate western holidays and Valentines Day is certainly no exception.
Kim and I don't usually do anything too special for Valentines Day. We have made the occasional meal for one another and exchanged cards or small items of sentiment but the day has always stood as more of an opportunity to have an excuse to be extra thoughtful towards each other. Since this was our first Valentines Day as a married couple and the first major holiday we have been able to spend together in a while, I thought it would be nice to start a new tradition: Valentines Day Scavenger Hunt!
Step 1: Go to the Japanese $1.60 Store and buy each other funny gifts
Step 2: Get picnic food
Step 3: Go to the park and enjoy a quiet picnic
Step 4: Hide the gifts from each other in the park and create a note/picture/treasure map to the gift
Step 5: Exchange said note/picture/treasure map, find gifts, and laugh
What actually happened:
Step 1 went off without a hitch. We made it across town to the Japanese $1.60 Store and went in one at a time to buy each other gifts.
Step 2 was a little more challenging. We then went to purchase some food for our picnic but when we got to the grocery store it was very difficult to find food that would be suitable for picnic eating. We were at a different grocery store than usual and had a hard time finding anything that would transport well. Instead we decided to wander the streets and pick up some street food along the way. As we were looking for something tasty we stumbled upon Spaghetti Italian Kitchen. As you probably know, Kim and I are BIG Italian fans so it was just meant to be.
Step 3 After our super tasty lunch we walked to the park only to find a huge festival there. See today is the 100 birthday of Bogyoke Aung San who was a Burmese general back in the 1940's. He was responsible for bringing Burma's independence from the British and is well praised by all Myanmar citizens. Throughout the park there were booths selling food and merchandise, concerts, photo exhibits, tributes to Aung San, and other celebratory areas.
While we were there we found a caricaturist who happily drew cartoon versions of Kim and me as a crowd of interested bystanders looked on. The final product is quite . . . um . . . interesting. Introducing: Gangster Kim and Long-Faced Alisa
The park was very busy due to the festival, the fact that it was a Saturday, and that it was Valentines Day. Going to the park is a favorite activity for young couples, they usually pick a nice grassy spot and set up an umbrella or two for privacy then spend the afternoon smooching and cuddling. This made it impossible to follow Step 4 of our plan because there was no way we would be able to hide anything without someone running after us to return what we obviously left behind.
On the bright side the busy park made for great people watching. I noticed two prevalent Valentines Day themes. The first being GIANT teddy bears. Seriously, I think the requirement for buying a teddy bear for your significant other is that it needs to be at least half of their size.
The second custom I noticed was matching clothing. All over the city we saw couples with matching shirts, or specifically designed two part shirts. For instance, a man was wearing a shirt that said "Will you marry me?" and his partner's shirt said "Yes, I do." Sometimes I noticed a mother and daughter following the trend, or two friends, or even a group of people. I tried to be sneaky and grab a few shots of these shirts as we walked through the park.
Step 4 Since we couldn't complete our scavenger hunt at the park we decided to finish it in our apartment building later in the evening. We took turns going out into the building and hiding the gifts then making our notes/drawings/treasure maps. I was giddy with excitement as we exchanged our notes and followed each other around the building. It was so fun, I think as Kim got close to her gift I was literally jumping up and down.
Step 5 Kim's note said "It's up high, you can see gold and hear lots of noise from the street."
This led me up to the top floor of the building where we had gone up once and noticed that we could see Shwedagon Pagoda. I found a bag tide to the railing with my gift inside. Kim had picked me out a funnel which is simply perfect because I make my own juice every morning and have the hardest time pouring it into the bottle that I drink it from. She is so thoughtful.
For my note I drew a treasure map along with this riddle:
"You will find your gift on the floor above the fifth
but don't be fooled, it's not on the sixth.
You will know you are in the right spot
if you hear singing and see 3 plants in pots.
Behind what you would use if a fire was in sight.
Don't be distracted by Shwedagon, the bright."
I hid the gift on the fourth floor (the third floor elevator door has a 5 on it) behind a fire hose. For the gift I chose a funny Japanese game that involves a gorilla who shoots out of a barrel when a certain peg is pulled out. The last picture is of Kim's face after she finally pulled the peg and the gorilla shot up to the ceiling and hit our kitchen light.
It has been such an eventful day. A fantastic random restaurant find, a surprise festival, Myanmar culture mixed with western traditions, a warm day in the park, a caricature of ourselves, a SUPER fun scavenger hunt, and starting a new holiday tradition with my love. Happy Valentines Day from Myanmar to you!
There is only one word that can truly summarize this year: adventure. There has been more change in the last 365 days than any other point in my life and with change comes spectacular opportunities. The year was filled with family, culture, food, photography, travel, celebrations, and huge life changes. It has been a beautiful journey and I have loved sharing it with you. Here are 14 AMAZING things that made 2014 an epic year.
14. Rode an Elephant & Got Chased by Monkeys
Not too far from my new home is a park where you can visit a variety of different animals. Halwga National Park is most well known for it monkey filled area where you can drive through and meet creatures along the way. We spent an afternoon feeding monkeys out the car window and getting to know the elephants that we were lucky enough to get a chance to ride on.
13. Help Portrait & FotoMarathon
I participated in two photography events this year. The first was FotoMarathon Yangon where we were challenged to go out in groups and take photos around town based on specific themes that were sent to us every two hours. You can read all about it here. Shortly after that I helped lead a group of students in creating a Help-Portrait event. This is a worldwide initiative that I also participated in when I was in Maine. The event involves taking photos for families who would not normally be able to afford professional photography, we invited the local staff and trishaw drivers from the school, dressed them up, did their makeup and hair, took their portraits, and printed out photographs for them to go home with that day. It was a beautiful experience that was not about taking photographs but about giving them. (Post coming soon)
12. Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival
As many of the best things do, my trip up to Tanuggi for the famous Fire Balloon Festival came very spontaneously as a weekend getaway with my friend Ashley. Thousands of people flock to the otherwise quiet town of Tanuggi each year to witness and participate in the traditional act of launching fire balloons. It was an experience like no other. Read about the whole festival here (videos included).
11. Watched Amanda & Josh Exchange Vows
The hardest day of homesickness I have had was the day of Amanda and Josh's wedding. Luckily we have amazing technology now that allowed me to watch the entire event. I stayed up all night since there is a 12 hour time difference and was able to skype/facetime in for everything from getting ready, formal pictures, ceremony, reception, cake, toasts, dance party and everything in between. Although I wish I could have been by my little sister's side and joined in with my family I was certainly celebrating from afar. Photo credit to Pipyr Photo.
10. New food. SO much new food.
Myanmar was certainly not love at first taste, it has taken quite a while to find the true gems of the cuisine but now that we have there is no going back! Tofu Noway, Kay-O, Tomato Salad, Steamed Dumplings, Fried Tofu, Mohinga, and so much more. This year has truly been an adventure for my tastebuds alone now if only I could adjust to the spices.
9. Safari in Africa
No trip to Africa is complete without a Safari and I completely understand why. There is no experience like that of watching a baby zebra nuzzle it's mother or a herd of elephants protecting their young. Sure I've seen most of these animals in zoos before but being able to watch them in their environment, in their world can't compare. My favorite were the giraffes with their long legs and their even longer necks, seeing them galloping around on their stilt-like legs was quite the site.
8. Honeymoon in Cancun
Although we were crunched for time after our wedding with only two months before the big move we wanted to take a breather and enjoy married life. With our big adventure right around the corner we decided the perfect honeymoon would be relaxing on the beach with drinks in our hands so we headed to the best place for it, an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, Mexico. We spent five beautiful days with our feet in the sand, swimming in the spectacular pools, drinking all sorts of tasty beverages, indulging in choice restaurants, and enjoying our new time together as a married couple. Although it was hard to pull off (scheduling and other wise) this was the absolute best wedding choice we made and I will always look back on this time fondly. See the rest of the photos here.
7. Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival
Unforgettable experiences are around every corner of my new life in Myanmar, but certainly one of the most spectacular has been the trip we took in October to Inle Lake. We were very fortunate to visit at the time of the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival which is a celebration that involves ferrying around five giant golden buddha statues to each town in the lake. The lake is so big that it takes almost a month to complete the whole route. Not only did we get to watch the parade but we also got to experience the rest of the stunning Inle Lake including traditional leg-rowing fishermen, long-neck women weaving, traditional silversmiths, hand paper weavers, the floating gardens, and my favorite, the crumbling pagodas of Indein. (PS Blog post coming soon with sooooo many more photos)
6. Welcomed Baby Zane into the World
Zane Andrew Simmons joined the world on March 8th. I can't believe this little peanut is over 9 months old now! He is such a sweet little boy who has brightened every life around him since he arrived most certainly the lives of his parents, my sister, Andrea, and my brother-in-law, Steve. I have missed him dearly since I have been away, luckily Andrea has been great at sharing about all the milestones - big and small - with pictures, stories, and videos. Can't wait until I get to snuggle this little guy again!
5. Photographed 5 Stunning Weddings
Capturing the moments of one of the most special days in a persons life is an honor and privilege, I know that sounds cheesy but it honestly is. The joy, celebration, and love that fills a wedding is unparalleled. Leaving behind Adorn photography was very difficult for me because I truly loved every minute of photographing wedding and portraits. Within the first few months of the year I was invited by five spectacular couples to photograph their wedding days and each one was so very special. I am certain about few things in my future but one of them is that I know I will return to photographing weddings at some point in my life. For now I will enjoy using my passion to capture the world around me through my travel photography.
4. Spent the Holidays with Renee in Tanzania
Ask either of us just a few years ago if we thought we would be spending the holidays together on safari in Africa or on the beaches of Zanzibar and both Renee, my sister, and I would have simply laughed. Such an unlikely story for two small-town New Englanders. Yet, this is exactly where we found ourselves this holiday season, see just two weeks before my winter break from school Kim flew back to Maine to be with her ill father which left the perfect opportunity for me to hop the Indian Ocean to visit Renee. Renee has been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for almost two years now where she freelances web design when she is not busy working on her passion of free diving and the resulting website www.seaunseen.com. We spent three amazing weeks celebrating the holidays, on safari, hanging out on the beach, diving, and having some much needed sister time.
3. Found Juicing and Lost 50 Pounds
It was actually December of 2012 that I started my health and fitness journey, dedicating most of 2013 to challenging myself physically and educating myself on proper health and nutrition. In January of this year I made the ultimate commitment to a 30 day juice fast and my life has not been the same since. Juicing allowed me to realign my expectations of food and reset my appetite. It not only gave me results in appearance but in self-confidence and strength of mind. With my juicing I finally felt in control of my body. I took the beginning of this year to fully commit to myself, focusing on goals like working out everyday and setting up a regular meditation schedule. It was an amazing time that I hope to revisit now that my life has settled down.
2. Moved 8151 miles away to Yangon, Myanmar
Without a doubt, the craziest thing that happened this year was packing up our belongings and moving to -literally- the other side of the world. Following my dream to teach abroad, Kim and I picked up and left everything behind (that couldn't fit in our 6 suitcases) to explore the world. Three days and 8151 miles later we found ourselves in a land like nothing we ever knew before. Myanmar has been everything we never expected, our time filled with awe, frustrations, curiosity, and a whole lot of laughter.
1. Married my Love
Without a doubt the most important day of 2014 was May 10th, the day that I married my love, Kimberly. As with any journey, who you travel with can be more important than any destination and nothing could have been half as wonderful this year without this amazing person by my side. Having someone to share in all of the adventures I have had this year and will continue to have into 2015 and beyond it the best thing I could ask for.
(Read all about our full wedding day here. Photo credit to Justine Johnson Photography.)
The biggest Fire Balloon Festival in Myanmar is located in the mountain town of Taunggyi which is about a 12 hour drive north of Yangon. I took an over-night bus up for an impromptu weekend getaway with my friend Ashley to see the festival. Being the biggest, I knew it was going to be a lot of people at the festival but I have not been anywhere in Myanmar with quite that amount of people all in one place before. If I were to guess I would say that there were probably a couple thousand people all gathered for the festivities. As we walked up to the festival grounds we were greeted by our first sighting of a fire balloon - and this one had fireworks on it! It was quite the site shooting up in the sky. (If you are impatient and just want to get to the action scroll all the way down for the video)
It was probably about a half a mile walk up to the main area of the festival and all the way up was lined with booths with vendors selling all sorts of things like clothing (traditional and modern), trinkets, gadgets, more clothing, accessories (purses and wallets), to name a few. There were a lot of warm clothing for sale especially hats and scarfs, although it was only about 50* or so people were dressed like it was freezing. I guess they are not quite as used to the cold as I am.
Of course there was food, all sorts of food. Mostly traditional barbecue (below), noodle dishes, lots of greasy fried things, and don't forget the rice! Along with the food were the beer stands. You could get beer just about anywhere and walk around with it. Or you could pop into one of the clubs that the beer/alcohol booths had set up behind. These closed in spaces had private DJs and lots of flashy lights.
There were lots of game booths also. There were the traditional prizes I was used to like stuffed animals or cheep plastic toys, but then there were the booths where you could win beer or cigarettes (above) or you could go straight for the bottles of liquor (below). Just make 2 baskets and it's yours!
Temporary tattoo anyone? This man had all sorts of stamps that he lines with thick black ink that supposedly lasts for about 5 days. I almost got one but I couldn't find a design I liked.
Two other types of booths were the monkey booth and the photo booths. When I peeked into the monkey booth I saw two monkeys sitting on hanging loops with a string attached to their legs. Ashley said that it was set up for people to pay money to see the monkeys to various tricks. The photo booth was kind of like glamor shots, where they dress you up in fancy or funny clothing, do your hair and makeup, then take your photo to be printed out and sent home with you.
And then there was the ride section. This looked like most carnivals that I knew, with kiddy rides, jumping houses, and a few bigger power rides. What was not so normal was the fact that the ferris wheels (there were three of them) were all human powered. By that I mean that there was no motor, instead amazingly skillful men would climb up the wheel and, when aligned, would all power it by leaning to one side and using their weight to spin it. To stop it they would jump back on to the bench parts of the wheel and use their weight to pull it the other way. It was quite the sight to see these men nimbly making their way all around the beams of the wheel and swinging around like acrobats. Check out the video below for the full effect.
Now off to the field to see some of the Fire Balloons up close. Fire Balloons are similar to Chinese lanterns in the way that they are lit using the hot air from fire and let off in the sky to burn. Yet this is like Fire Balloons to the extreme because these balloons were GIGANTIC!!! If I were to guess I would say they were somewhere between 10 and 20 feet in diameter. Each balloon is sponsored by a different village, organization, or company and these are represented on the sides of the balloon in writing or symbols. Besides just good fun the general idea is that you send a wish or good thoughts out into the world to get the universe to fulfill.
But the balloons are not the only things that are lit, they are also adorned with hundreds of small candles. These mini lanterns are colored so when arranged they reveal an image of sorts. They are hooked onto specific spots on the balloon, this has to be done very quickly as the balloon is filling but before it gets too full. Lots of helpers are needed for this part.
Fire is slowly built up below the balloon and fills it with hot air to make it inflate. Many skilled people are needed to help with this part as to not burn the balloon itself. After it gets filled enough one main fire is lit under it and the sticks are removed, these are just placed aside within the crowd. The process of filling the whole balloon up takes only 10-20 minutes.
While this is happening there is also a whole other section of the balloon being worked on. This section is completed by taping wooden frames together then placing more of the colored mini lanterns on it to show another symbol of sorts. The rows of lights here were quite stunning.
Finally the sections are attached together and lifted off.
Sometimes instead of the mini lanterns, the balloons are decorated. These specially decorated balloons are always accompanied by a box of fireworks underneath them (instead of the wooden frame with mini lanterns). The fireworks start shooting off almost immediately and stretch right above the heads of the crowd. As you can imagine this is extremely dangerous. I later found out that the night before there was a huge accident where one of the balloons fell back into the crowd. Apparently somewhere between 1 and 3 people died and somewhere between 15 and 30 people got injured. The news is all hearsay here so it is difficult to get the specifics. Luckily all was well and good the night I was there.
Here is the video of the full process:
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world