Friday, June 9, 2017

Should we get off the bike? The struggle to appreciate overwhelming beauty in Bagan.

By Sarah

My mission in Bagan was simple: find a good sunset spot. In an area with nearly 3,000 temples, surely I could find one that was high enough to see over the tree line, neighbored by interesting and varied temples, and remote enough that we wouldn’t have to fight to find a perch from which to watch the sun sink and the rusty orange of the surrounding structures glow.

Through force of habit, I did a quick google search. The same three temples were recommended over and over. Even some new friends we met by the pool of our hotel told us they found a great sunset spot, then proceeded to recommend the one listed prominently in Lonely Planet.

But I wanted a 360 view from a quiet temple. I imagine sitting on top, just Flounder and I, meditating in peace as the light faded and the air lost its sticky heat.

So we set out from our hotel at a reasonable time in the morning, for we are not sunrise people. “The only time I want to see the sunrise is if I’ve been up all night,” Flounder says.

Within a minute, we began to see temples of burnt orange on both sides of the road. Some were rounded at the base and pointy at the top like stupas (or, for Fairfielders, like the kalashes atop the domes), others were rectangular, or pentagonal. Some were carved and embellished, others were plain. Some were overgrown, with tree trunks and vines, and some were pristine.

I began pestering Flounder. “Pull over! I want to see if I can climb up that temple!”

He went with me the first few times. We were full of enthusiasm and awe. “Look at those ones over there!” we’d point, stop, and explore.

When I found a temple that might fit my criteria, I’d mark it on the map. ‘Possible sunset view?’ Then move on.

But soon even I tired as we passed hundreds of perfect, unique temples. Thus is sightseeing, the tragedy of being surrounded by the most fascinating places and noticing how quickly that fascination fades.

“Another example of fine craftmanship? A bridge to ancient cultures? The finest specimen of its kind? No, let’s not get off the bike, I can take a quick picture from here.”

And as the heat mounted, the energy to leave our little electronic bike, to poke my head into dark spaces and search for narrow staircases up to a sunset view, that energy faded. So we got lost a little. We navigated sandy paths, we startled scrawny, lithe squirrels and upset dozing birds trying to hide in the bushes from the midday heat.

Soon we came across horses pulling tourists in wooden carts and knew we must be near the “highlight” temples. We ducked into the large, cool structures and I noticed about as many pilgrims as tourists. The area of Bagan, a stop on every tourist itinerary in Myanmar, is also a profoundly important site for the many devout Buddhists in the country. So I covered my legs and shoulders, removed my shoes, and tried not to get in the way of the worshippers praying, circling the inner shrine, or paying to apply another square or two of gold leaf to the statues of Buddha.

In the afternoon, in the full heat of the hottest part of the day, I found The One. It had a 360 view, was relatively isolated, and had stairs big enough that Flounder wouldn’t need to crawl to get up them. It was perfect and I knew immediately.

So we went back to the hotel pool (side note: get a hotel with a pool. During the 36 degree afternoons, there was nothing better than to dip in and out of our pool, reading a book, and chatting with other travelers.) then rode back out in the cool of the late afternoon to The One.

We had the temple almost to ourselves; it was just us and a man selling paintings. But after we sat down to meditate, he started to pack up and soon it was just us and a panorama view of the temples big and small surrounding us, glowing softly in the setting sun. Their golden warmth was offset by the green of trees and fields and the white of stubborn cows being pushed by small laughing boys, heading to a home between temples built nearly a thousand years ago.

That’s the thing about sightseeing. It’s easy to become blasĂ© about the most amazing things, to not even muster the energy to get off the bike. But then, sometimes, you find yourself with a person you love watching the sun setting over breathing history, and the beauty of it catches in your throat.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

At loose ends in Mandalay

By Sarah

“So how do we get from the airport to the city?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I think there’s a taxi or a share taxi?” Flounder answered, nonchalantly.

We were standing in the check in line at the Bangkok airport, about 90 minutes before our flight to Mandalay, Myanmar.

Beautiful teak monastery in Mandalay

How could he not know? And then because I have no filter, I asked him, “How could you not know? It’s your job to research these things!” I smiled cheekily.

“Yeah, I think I just don’t care as much. I know now that things will just work out.”

This was a shift. A shift from our early days of traveling together, when Flounder liked to plan every aspect of a trip—book every hotel, know where we were going and how to get there. But also a shift in the unassigned but assumed roles we’d fallen into in our relationship. He was the planner, the researcher. And I was the on-the-ground communicator. He did the work before the trip, I the work during.

Airports can be hectic, full of scams, and we were going to a new country.

But Mandalay’s airport was a surprise—calm, organized, plenty of agents. Our evisa was processed quickly, our customs form accepted immediately, and there was no one waiting for departing passengers, trying to usher us into their overpriced taxis. Instead, we took out money from the ATM, bought two sim cards (for a total of $3), and booked a seating in a waiting van that, for less than $4 apiece, would take us directly to our hotel.

Beehive boxes on the side of the road

The drive from the airport was lovely—about an hour through mango groves and green fields dotted with palm trees and pagodas.

It's mango season! Mangoes are everywhere

When we arrived at our hotel, the streets dark and unlit around us, I asked Flounder, “What do you want to do tomorrow?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

Neither of us had done the research.

I loved seeing spotting these symbols around town

So we did what we love to do. We rented bikes and rode around the city. We rode to the jetty on the shore of the Ayeyarwady river and asked about boats (none in the wet season). So we ignored the early hour and sat at a riverside beer station, Flounder drinking a breakfast draught while we both watched the kids splash in the water below and the women wash laundry and hang it from the ropes tying wooden boats to the shore.

Action on the Ayeyarwady River

Flounder enjoys a fresh beer and pets a friendly kitty. A perfect combo!

Taking a break from cycling in the heat

We rode on a teak bridge, struggled making left turns into relentless traffic of all speeds and sizes, saw monasteries and temples, searched for a buffet serving food from the Shan region of Myanmar, ignored the Thai imported durian and bought local instead, ducked inside when the afternoon rain started, rode along the moat and walls surrounding the royal palace, and chuckled at the antics of roly babies (so many children!), their faces covered in the soft thanaka paste so emblematic of the country.

Teak bridge

An overloaded cyclist (is there any other kind in Southeast Asia?)

There were many things that we didn’t do, and some things that perhaps we could have done with advance research. But we ended the day full, happy, and with a taste of Myanmar that left us excited for more.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tentacles (Bangkok residency)

My studio space
Summer is my time for residencies and travel. This summer I had one in Bangkok. Sarah was in Thailand, but 4 hours away teaching a writing course (I’ll let her write about that if she wants). I hadn’t been back to Thailand since Sarah and my first 6 months together when I visited her in Thailand. I was excited to go again.

the gallery cafe/meeting area
My residency got moved at the last minute and I ended up at Tentacles Art Space, but there were several other residents so I was happy. Maybe I should explain what a residency is for those of you who are unfamiliar. It is basically time and space to just think about, research, and make artwork, free of other duties (such as teaching and service). It is an amazing gift to be able to do. I am lucky that this falls under professional development from my university as well!

gallery hopping
I was busy finalizing grading before I left for Bangkok so I hadn’t had much time to think about the trip. But I was picked up at the airport by two interns, Christine (American) and Boyd (Thai who studied in the US). These were the first of many helpful interns and gallery staff. Pretty quickly upon arriving there were two art happenings around the city which were nice, since the other residents and several gallery people went to each.

eating durian in Chinatown after TCDC opening
Two residents, Ajoon and Zefan, were there for a month before we arrived, they were both Indonesian. Kate is Korean American and arrived the day after I did. Kate and I did an internal presentation to kick things off and show people what we’d be working on.

found object
So, what was I working on? I brought my microscope to do some photo and video. I also brought my 3D scanner with the plans to make it mobile, but never did so it languished on my shelf the whole month. I collected items from an area of Bangkok that regularly floods. Basically, anything that I could find on the street that would fit in a small bag, I picked up and labeled. I also collected water from several places. Flooding is predicted to get worse in Bangkok as the climate changes and I was interested in looking at this through a scientific tool, but an artist’s mindset.

The residents and gallery staff took a fun fieldtrip to another town, Ratchaburi. We visited an amazing ceramics factory/artist space. We also toured a local museum. One of the highlights (besides good food and company) was these small local shops that had been part of an exhibition that was dispersed throughout the city. We visited a couple of interesting artists who had a great space for projects as well as running a graffiti mural project in town. It was a really interesting and fun day!
The ceramics factory and art space

Finally, I got to visit Sarah in Chanthaburi! We stayed in a cute hotel on the river. The next day we went to where she teaches so she could show me around. I’d only ever seen it in her photos. It was great seeing here after our longest separation since we moved in together almost 5 years ago!

Back with my love! (temporarily)

Basically Sarah's personal Durian tree

 Work progressed at the residency, although it was quieter with a couple of staff away and the residents doing their own thing. I started putting stuff under the microscope as well as trying many output experiments.

found plastic prayer flag under microscope
Polyurethane coating prints, epoxy resin was better!

Eventually Sarah joined me in Bangkok and we celebrated my 39th birthday! I’d met some fun video game design from France and we went to a board game cafĂ©. We went to a lecture on Art and Science by TeZ, had some pampering (massages and my first pedicure), finally some drinks with the residents and staff (including a new one, Catherine from New Zealand).

my birthday (I don't know what the fuss is with pedicures)

experimental video

Then almost too soon, it was time to have an open studio and lecture to wrap things up. It went well. I am happy with my experiments. I don’t feel like anything was finalized, but I learned some new software, learned some new resins, and continued developing the microscopy work.

my open studio setup
So many thanks to all the people that helped me at the residency (hoping I don’t forget anyone or massacre anyone’s name): Bow, Henry, Pon, Noll, Anna, Katie, Shanita…and, of course, my department chair--Woodman and AUD for sending me!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Looking for Song Kol in the Mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Flounder is still feeling sick, though he slept through the night so I am hopeful. I know, however that he needs another day to rest in Kyzart, another day in the tiny village we’ve already been stranded in for three days.

As for me, I want to glimpse this famous Song Kol, the alpine lake we travelled to Kyzart to see in the first place, so I decided to walk. Not to the lake. That’s 15 kilometers and over 1500 meters of elevation gain then 500 meters descent away. No, I’d walk up to the ridge of the mountains that separates our little village from the lake and get some exercise and maybe a nice view of Song Kol and the yurts that surround it in the summer months.

With the help of Flounder and google satellite images, I find my starting point—a road that looks like it snakes into the mountains, passing over the small but rushing and ice-cold rivers that run in the way.

Over the river and into the mountains

I head out around 8:45 am, optimistic that I can reach the peak by noon. But I am soon surprised by the distance of things. It takes me around an hour just to reach the road we’d scouted on google, and that was walking on a level, cleared path. As I walk out of the village, the houses behind me, I begin to scan the mountains for any sign of a path. I see a small cluster of buildings on the gentle slope at the ridge’s beginning and I head there, thinking I might at least ask someone if I’m going in the right direction.

‘Salam alaykum,’ I call out the woman who just stepped out of the house. She motions me toward her, tying up the madly barking dog at her side.

‘Song Kolga kiteym. I’m going to Song Kol,’ I say, hoping I’ve remembered the words right. I point up and ask, ‘Mumkun mu? Is it possible?

She nods, and the younger man who walked toward us also confirms that it’s possible. She says a lot of words I don’t understand, but I am able to make out her offer of chai, and after brief consideration, I agree. I follow her into her house. There are two rooms—a kitchen and a multipurpose room with a twin bed on one side and a low-to-the-ground table on the other. She ushers me in and mixes me a cup of tea much in the way they do in Turkey: a small pot contains strong tea and a larger pot contains hot water. You mix the two to your desired strength. As we drink tea, I nibble on the bread she offered and try to use the little Kyrgyz I can remember.
With the mother who invited me in for chai

I tell her I’m American, but I live in Dubai. ‘Dubai’da jashaym.’

She asks if I have children and then I ask her the same question.

She holds up four fingers. ‘Tort,’ she says, then quickly corrects herself, ‘besht,’ adding a fifth finger as she speaks. She points to the younger man outside, indicating he is her son. I wonder if he’s the fifth, rather forgettable child.

She pours me a second cup and would have poured a third, but I needed to get going, so I thank her and again confirm the correct direction to Song Kol before I leave.

I wave to her and her son and set off, following a small, rapid stream and trying to stick to the horse path I found. Plagues of grasshoppers jump in every direction as I walk, clicking and rattling as they fly through the air. Soon I lose the horse path, then find it, then lose it again.

I follow the stream

I try to follow the stream, but the dry ground that was a haven for grasshoppers soon turns lush, fragrant with clover and wildflowers of blue, purple, red, and orange. Something underfoot smells spicy, like a wild cousin of the more cultivated thyme. Soon the undergrowth isn’t so much under as it is around me, up to my knees, then up to my waist, as high as my shoulder.

I push through, following the stream’s path up and up and up. The slope is gentle, so I hardly need to stop, but the going is slow, obstructed as my path is by the verdant riverside flowers and the unseen and uneven ground.

Through flowers up to my shoulders

I am making progress; for proof I need only to look behind me at the tiny village of Kyzart below, but when noon comes and goes I can see that my idea of reaching the peak by noon was clearly too optimistic.

‘Maybe 1 o’clock?’ I muse. But at 1 o’clock I round a bend in the path and see, not the blue sky I hoped for, but rather a large green mountain still looming above me. It’s time to change my plan.

My view at 1:00 p.m. Still a long way to go.

I set a time limit of 2:00 p.m. If I haven’t reached the peak and seen Song Kol by then, I would still turn around. That would be more than five hours of hiking and I don’t want to worry Flounder and I definitely want to be back in the guesthouse before dark.

I forge up, out of the gentle but overgrown riverbed, up a steep slope, in the hope of lower growth, better footing, and a faster path to the top. The slope is so steep I need to use my hands in places and I quickly discover that the flowers and plants are taller than they had appeared. In short, leaving the riverbed behind was a change, but perhaps not a good one.

1:15 p.m. I take as many steps as I can, before pausing, counting my breaths and waiting for them to slow down. Progress is slow, but I am gaining elevation.

1:30 p.m. I can see the rocky peak of the slope ahead of me (but mainly above me).
Beautiful view, but I'm still far from the peak
1:45 p.m. I finally reach the top and suddenly can see the valley to my left as well as mountains in the distance that had been hidden from view. But no sign of Song Kol. Instead I see a higher peak wrapping around my mountain and jutting far up above. 15 minutes left. Should I give up? Or try to scale this new peak?

1:50 p.m. I forge my own switchback as the slope up the peak is steep and my legs are feeling weak and wobbly from hours of hiking uphill.

My final view. Time to turn around.

2:00 p.m. I reach the top of my peak, but instead of Song Kol, I see yet another peak rising up. It’s time to turn around, to give up and head back. Giving up is difficult for me; stubbornness often trumps safety. But it’s made easier now by my worn-out legs and my worn-out husband waiting for me back in Kyzart.

I take one last picture of the mountain that defeated me, then put my small pack on and turn around.


For the first time I hear a sound other than the buzzing of bees and occasional call of birds. I look in the direction I think the sound came from, but I see nothing. I scan the mountains around me, hands on hips. Did I imagine it? Could it just be a bird?


It’s definitely human, but I still can’t see the human making the sound. Tired of looking and seeing nothing, I start my descent.

‘HELLLLLO!’ this time I hear some other words, not in English, and it occurs to me that maybe this voice is not speaking to me. Maybe he’s hailing a friend. So I continue my descent with more confidence but not more speed; the growth is so high that it makes walking downhill nearly as slow as walking uphill was.

Looking down at the village of Kyzart

I’ve forgotten about the voice and the unseen human attached to it. I’m focusing now on each step, on the pressure in my knees from the steep descent, and on the pain in my toes as my feet smush forward in my shoes.


This time the voice is closer and I turn around. I can see him now. It’s a man on a horse, accompanied by a very shaggy dog. He motions me to join him and I, not wanting to climb up the same hill again, make an exaggerated shrugging gesture as if I don’t understand. He rides downhill toward me.

As he comes closer I have some time to look at him and also some time to think. I don’t mean to sound alarmist or untrusting, but as a woman walking alone in a very remote place, my mind immediately tries to gauge the threat and simultaneously map out my options in case something goes wrong. He’s an older local man, wearing a wool skullcap and sporting a small moustache. But more than these things, I notice the gun he’s carrying. It’s a long rifle, likely for hunting and likely good only at long distances. Still, it’s a bit of an intimidating sight.

He gets closer, dismounts from his horse, and smiles at me.

‘Song Kol?’ he asks.

Jok, Kyzart,’ I say. ‘Song Kolga kitbeym. I’m not going to Song Kol,’ I say, hoping I’ve got the words right.

He sits on the ground, pulls out binoculars and invites me to join him. I think he sees my trepidation because he says, pointing to himself, ‘Hrasho. Good.’ And then, pointing to me, he says ‘Hrasho. Good,’ and hands me the binoculars. I sit down and look through them, but I don’t know what I’m looking at and I can’t focus, so after a polite interval I give them back and get up to leave.

He points to a different buttress leading off the mountain, just over one valley to the left, and indicates that it would be a better place to descend. But I notice that to get there I would need to walk down into the valley then back up a steep slope and I decide it’s not worth it.

Again, I think he sees my trepidation, because he motions me toward his horse and leads us, me astride the horse, shaggy dog at our side, over to the next mountain buttress. The horse is surefooted, but not as surefooted as the man leading the horse.

My kind guide and I

Along the way he asks the usual questions and I respond. We’re using a mix of Kyrgyz and Russian to talk about where we live, our spouses, our number of children (he has 8!). He asks if Flounder and I might like him to guide us to Song Kol. I’m tempted by the option as he clearly knows the way and seems like a kind man, but I know Flounder is too weak to make plans.

At the ‘path’ to Kyzart we stop. I take a few photos and he joyfully poses with me. As I lift my backpack he eyes my water and asks if can drink some.

‘Ich, ich. Drink, drink,’ I say, encouraging him to have as much as he likes. I see now that he doesn’t have any water with him. ‘Ich, ich,’ I say, repeating what the older woman who offered me tea near the beginning of my hike had said to me. He drinks and as he does I get out my little chunk of sunflower seed halva to offer him. He nibbles the halva, has another drink, then asks if he can kiss my hand before we part. I smile and laugh as he kisses my hand, then wave goodbye as he swings up onto his horse.

‘Paka paka. Bye bye,’ I shout.

‘Paka,’ he calls out in return and I head down the mountain, knees feeling the pressure and toes squished again into the fronts of my shoes.

I turn around only minutes later and already the group of three—man, horse, and dog—are so small against the immense green mountain that I can barely spot them, slowly climbing up the pass to Song Kol.

And I, I’m slowly descending toward Kyzart, my joints aching and my toes bruised. With the monotony of the downhill hike and of passing the same landscape for a second time, the disappointment of what I haven’t managed hits me and rattles around in my bored brain. I was looking for Song Kol and I didn’t even glimpse it. I didn’t even glimpse it. I didn’t even glimpse it. The thought is stuck on repeat.

Perhaps it’s the snow-patched mountains in the distance, or the green-covered mountains around me, or maybe it’s the tiny remote village waiting below; something stops my rattling, repeating thought.

‘No, you didn’t glimpse Song Kol,’ I interrupt myself. ‘But you were invited in for chai, sampled some bread and Kyrgyz hospitality, you breathed fresh alpine air, hobnobbed with wildflowers, surrounded yourself with green mountain peaks, and you rode on a horse and shared your water with a gentleman. And you’re heading back now to the sweetest gentleman of them all.’

A pretty good day.