Tag Archives: video

Cape Town – Boulders Beach

Standard

By far my favorite thing to do in Cape Town was visiting Boulders Beach – a small beach near Simon’s Town famous for its colony of African penguins. It gets its name from the large boulders in the sand and water, but really, no one cares about the damn boulders.

What people care about are the penguins, because:

  • They live on the beach not in the arctic
  • They sound like braying donkeys
  • Penguins!

Basics on what you need to know:

  • Boulders is located about an hour outside of the main city near Simon’s Town – accessible by car or MetroRail train (walk from Simon’s Town)
  • Costs R65 – about $4
  • Penguins are viewed from the boardwalk – you get close but not *that* close
  • It is recommended to pair with the Cape of Good Hope – about a 30-minute drive away

Photos below!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Travel Tip #2 – The Many Uses of a Sarong

Standard

Multi-purpose items are always a good thing when trying to pack light for a trip, which is why a sarong makes it to the top of my list of things to carry with me while traveling. From a skirt to a blanket to a beach towel and more, check out the different ways to use a sarong.

Travel Tip #1: Using Contact Cases to Store Toiletries

Standard

If you’re like me, soap and toothpaste just don’t cut it in the grooming department, but nobody wants to carry a bag of multiple toiletries on long-term trips.

For those travelers who *require* multiple products to be pretty everyday – this tip is for you! Check out how contact lens cases can be repurposed to store your favorite specialty toiletries without weighing down your luggage.

Getting Lost in the Fall at Blast Corn Maze

Standard

One of my absolutely favorite things to do in Michigan in the fall is a corn maze, and the Blast Corn Maze at Nixon Farms in Dexter doesn’t disappoint.

The experience is basically what it sounds like – a winding journey through the corn stalks with the goal of finding the way out. At Blast, that maze goes through more than 10 acres of corn with three options of a short, medium or long route for all levels of skill (or patience). For extra challenge, bring a flashlight and try it in the dark!

In my case, my friends and I arrived in late afternoon and opted for the long route. We decided to really test our navigational skills by splitting up and racing, which seemed like a great idea at the time, except then I remembered my personal sense of direction was lacking, and I hadn’t bought a map…

Luckily, the maze is marked by eight check points to lead you on your journey and extra exits are available if you truly cannot find your way out.

Despite literally running around in circles for 15 minutes (and somehow finding my way back to the start!), I was determined to make it through the entire path and made friends with a young family who had had the forethought to purchase a map.

Together, we examined the pumpkin-shaped design to navigate to our next checkpoint, hitting some dead ends along the way but making our way steadily through the path.

In the end, I lost (badly) to my friends, who had made it through the maze sans maps in about a half an hour. For me? 57 minutes :).

For those with a less competitive spirit, just walking through the stalks on a crisp autumn day is worth the experience. There’s a peacefulness to being surrounded by corn under sunny blue skies, and the sunset reflecting off the stalks and surrounding trees was absolutely beautiful. Though I certainly wouldn’t recommend a viewing of Children of the Corn beforehand ;).

At $8 per ticket, Blast is one of the more affordable corn mazes in the region and, being open until early November, it also makes it one of the longest-running in the state. In addition to the maze, it offers a variety of supplementary attractions including a pumpkin patch, hayrides, petting zoo, cider and more, making it a fun fall attraction for the whole family.

To learn more visit www.blastcornmaze.com.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Visiting Michigan’s Most Bizarre Party

Standard

If you’re looking for something a little more unique for Halloween, Detroit has possibly the coolest party around: Theatre Bizarre.

To call Theatre Bizarre a Halloween party would be superficial at best. While the event is a costume party and does take place in October, Theatre Bizarre is just as much a performance as it is party. And comparing it to your average Halloween party, it’s frankly, more bizarre…

After about a decade at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, the event moved to its permanent home in Detroit’s Masonic Temple in 2011. And while there are many old-schoolers yearning for the illegal days of the past, the Temple’s beautifully gothic structure adds its own dark atmosphere perfect for an evening of spectacle, magic and debauchery.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Theatre Bizarre is not for the faint of heart nor is it for those, we’ll say, a little too pure of heart… The Temple’s eight floors are filled with a variety of experiences to choose from ranging from live music and dancing on the ground floor to a train ride in the dark on the top floor to a plethora of characters performing (in various states of dress and costume) in between. The real fun is in the exploration and never quite knowing what’s coming next… 

While the event has developed quite a hype over the years, to truly understand Theatre Bizarre one must experience it first-hand. But if you do – come prepared. Below are a few tips:

  • Purchase tickets early: Tickets go on sale in the summer and sell out every year. If you don’t want to be hunting through Craig’s List (like I did) and pay exorbitant prices beyond the $80+ ticket, get yours early.
  • Dress to impress: Costumes are mandatory but tend to be quite elaborate with some preparing months in advance. This is an opportunity to get creative and go full out – take advantage of it!
  • Bring an open mind: Theatre Bizarre’s themes explore sexuality, illusion, counterculture and the general bizarre. Come with an open mind and enjoy an evening of marvel! 

For more information on Theatre Bizarre visit www.TheatreBizarre.com

For more Michigan travel tips visit Under the Radar Michigan.

Fun with Kriyas

Standard

One of my favorite classes during my yoga teacher training course at the Association for Yoga and Meditation was kriya class. Kriyas are yogic cleansing techniques meant to purify the body and mind, as well as treat and prevent disease. There are six areas of focus, including the stomach (“dhauti”), the lower intestines (“basti”), the nose (“neti”), the eyes (“tratak”), the abdominal organs (“nauli”) and the brain (“kapalbhati”). Done properly, kriyas clean and strengthen the body, focus the mind, enhance the senses, build stamina, combat allergies and can even help people quit smoking.

Now, some of these techniques are quite ambitious. “Vastra dhauti,” for example, involves swallowing a cloth to induce vomiting. “Gomutra neti” requires one to shoot cow’s urine through his or her nostrils. And advanced stages of tratak involve staring at the sun for long periods of time.

Needless to say, we focused on tamer kriya techniques. And I must admit, sometimes, it was kind of hilarious.

To start, we learned “jala neti,” a nasal cleansing technique that uses a neti pot (a small pot with a nostril-sized spout) to run warm salt water through one’s nose and sinuses. The process is supposed to clear the buildup within the nose and sinuses, desensitize hyperactive nasal tracks and combat allergies and respiratory problems. It is also good for relaxation.

The technique seemed fairly simple. After filling your pot with warm salt water, you hold the bottom of the pot, insert its tip into one of your nostrils, bend forward and tilt your head, making sure to keep your mouth open to breathe and prevent water from entering the lungs. What should result is what I like to call a “fountain effect,” whereby a steady stream of water flows smoothly from the second nostril. Let me tell you, it’s damn sexy.

My classmates seemed naturally apt at this. I looked around the courtyard and saw one fountain spring up after the other and thought, “Ok, I got this.” Then it turned out, actually, not so much.

I thought I was doing everything correctly. I filled up my pot, inserted the tip and tilted. I felt the water go in, I just didn’t feel it come out. There is something about standing around in a courtyard watching people shoot water out their noses that is just really funny. Perhaps part of the problem was I couldn’t keep a straight face.

Eventually, my teachers came by and helped me adjust, ultimately resulting in my own special “Erica Fountain.” It was a proud moment.

Fountain Erica!

Fountain Erica!

The second kriya didn’t happen at all. This one, “sutra neti,” involves taking a sterilized, waxed or rubber string, inserting it into one nostril and pulling it out the mouth and essentially “flossing” back and forth. If this activity doesn’t sound that appealing to you, trust me, it didn’t sound that much fun to me either.

But I tried. Again, the instructions were clear: take the waxed string, straighten it out, then create a gentle “J” curve and begin to work the curved end through one nostril until reaching the sinus cavity in the back, then gently lower down and pull out the front.

Experimenting with sutra neti

Experimenting with sutra neti

I think I made it about three inches before the violent gagging and coughing took place. I even tried to have our teacher, Mahesh, help, though I’m not sure having a different person insert a foreign object into your face is much more comfortable than doing it yourself. It certainly yielded the same reaction.

Mahesh's attempt to help with sutra neti

Mahesh’s attempt to help with sutra neti

In the end, I decided my sinuses were pretty good as they were.

After struggles with the “neti” kriyas, I finally had more luck with the “nauli” kriya meant to cleanse the abdominal organs. Now, before you go envisioning more foreign objects being inserted into the body to remove bodily fluids, I’ll tell you, this one required no such action.

Nauli kriya is a stomach cleansing technique that essentially involves lifting one’s abdominal organs up into the body behind the lungs and rotating them around, all without breathing. To do it properly, one must begin with an empty stomach and empty bowels. You then take a long exhale to empty the lungs, bend forward and use your muscles to tuck your stomach in and up before moving it around. The effect is a starved-looking, bizarre-moving body that is super impressive at parties.

Despite my earlier neti troubles, I actually did pretty well at nauli kriya. After a few tries I kind of got the hang of it, even making this super attractive video:

While I did make some progress on my kriyas, I obviously still have quite a ways to go. I recently read of an advanced kriya involving removing one’s own colon from the body and washing it. Now that’s impressive!

The Big Jump

Standard

“Darr Ke Aage Jeet Hai,” – Beyond Fear Lies Victory.

This Hindi saying, shared with me by my Indian friend Naren on convincing me to jump off a 160-meter bridge, is quite apt.

While some may disagree, I have realized in recent months how many of my decisions have been motivated by fear: fear of public perception, fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of regret. I’m not afraid to take risks, moving abroad and backpacking solo for nearly a year across Asia is evidence of that, but that doesn’t always extend to all parts of my life.

For me, bungy jumping was never even a consideration.

Aside from the fact I really had no interest in the activity, my mother had firmly ingrained this “bungy jumping is dangerous and equals sudden death” mentality into my head since I was a child. That stuff runs deep.

But the minute I landed in Kathmandu, Nepal and saw the bungy advertisements, something changed. My birthday was coming up, and somehow that firmly ingrained idea of “never” changed into “wouldn’t it be crazy if…” While 28 has never been considered a milestone, this birthday was coming near the end of my once-in-a-lifetime epic journey throughout Asia, and I knew I wanted it to be special.

Still, this was a long shot. Even if my thirst for adrenaline were to eventually rise to bungy-level, I was still on the white water rafting/rock climbing/parasailing stage, bungy jumping was an exponential leap up.

When I met up with Naren and semi-jokingly put forth the idea, I should have known better than to ask a guy who runs adventure sports camps for a living. His very enthusiastic “Yes, we’re doing it!” scared the daylights out of me. Though my reply was “Let me think about it,” my sharply rising anxiety levels told me the decision had already been made: I was going to jump.

For days my fake indecisive self was stressing. I suddenly found the need shop constantly and eat everything (how many momos are too many? ;)) and sleep was fleeting.

The night before, waiting last minute to hand over my $100 to the bungy agency, signing a “you-realize-you’re-jumping-off-a-bridge-wearing-only-an-elastic-band-it’s-not-our-fault-if-you-die-insane-person” waiver, my crazy levels rose yet again. I began running all over Kathmandu asking every person I met whether or not they had ever jumped from a 160 meter bridge and what they thought of it, while constantly chanting (or rather butchering) “Darr Ke Aage Jeet Hai” (luckily Naren is a very patient person and found my nuttiness rather amusing).

And then, the big day. The craziness peaked.

Nepal Bus Ride

On the bus ride to the bungy jump!

Aside from death, I was more realistically afraid of the intensity of the adrenaline rush and if the free fall would be too much for me, leaving with me memories of extreme terror and a fear of heights I did not have before.

But on the lovely five-hour bus ride through the mountains (which realistically, is WAY more dangerous), I decided that I could control my reaction to how this jump turned out and whether or not it would be a positive or negative experience. If I chickened out, I not only lost $100 but my pride. I was going to own this jump. Like a boss.

Step 1: Sleep deprivation. Deciding to pack four hours before your scheduled bus departure puts you in a loopy enough mood to soften the reality that you’re about to plunge yourself over a bridge into a massive canyon.

Step 2: High energy dance music. Probably the most fun part of our bus trip was Naren and I riding up the last strip rocking out to Rick Astley, Queen and Motown (“ ‘Cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough…” ;)) working ourselves into a manic frenzy to prepare ourselves.

Step 3: Don’t think. Just do.

When we finally reached the resort, I think everyone in the bus had a moment of “Oh $%!#! Are we actually doing this?” And then it was the briefing: stand here, hold this, don’t look down…

Bungy Canyon

The 160-meter drop down…

While I had actually signed up for traditional bungy, I opted last minute to switch to canyon swing, an equally terrifying jump in a harness that would put less strain on my bad knee and offer twice as long free fall time.

And then it was time to walk the plank. To my surprise, the line moves along rather quickly, and I was running out of chicken out moments. Harness on, inches from the jumping platform, I asked the jump master to give me a second to catch my bearings. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you get three.” Very funny, that one.

Erica Hobbs Bungy Jump

Freaking out before the big jump

As Naren waited a few feet behind me, anticipating a highly-dramatic, song-and-dance freak out routine, my mind went suddenly clear. I felt the pull of the canyon line, looked ahead to the mountains and did the only action required of me: I jumped.

The minute you step off the platform the decision is made. No more freak outs, no more opportunities to back out, all you can do is sit and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was.

Like a second before, my mind went blank, I didn’t even scream. Instead, I felt my eyes get very large as I took in the blurry mountains, trees and river that were rushing by all around me. For seven seconds, I was weightless, and though it was by far the biggest adventure rush I had ever had, it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. And when I felt the harness catch (yay, I survived!), the leisurely swing through the canyon provided one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Bungy Canyon Nepal

The view from the bungy bridge – in Panglang, Nepal, 12 km from the Tibetan border

But more incredible and unexpected than anything was the immense sense of satisfaction I felt afterward. I had faced my fears and won. And the feeling was truly victorious.

While it was only a jump, freeing yourself from the control of fear is one of the most liberating feelings ever. I’d like to think now that it will be easier to apply this “jump” to other aspects of my life as well.

If not, I suppose I can always try again. Skydiving anyone? 😉

After the Jump

Victorious – Darr Ke Aage, Jeet Hai!

The Big Ka-Buddha!

Standard

Giant Buddha

A few years ago I was sitting at a café, when I randomly spotted an image of an enormous Buddha in a travel magazine. I had never seen an image like this before, and I was immediately intrigued. I knew one day I had to see this thing.

I remember glancing at the fine print and reading the Buddha was located in China, but I had never heard of the city before and soon forgot the name. Years later, when I was finally making plans to go to China, I knew I had to find this place. Lucky for me, Leshan, home of officially the world’s largest Buddha, was not too hard to find, and in fact was an easy day trip from Chengdu in Sichuan.

Carved into a cliff face, the Buddha is 233 feet tall, with shoulders 92 feet wide, and toes that are nearly 30 feet long, each! It was constructed between 713-803AD under the instruction of a monk who thought the Buddha’s presence would calm the tempestuous rivers that plagued the shipping vessels that went by. Interestingly enough, the sheer amount of rock that went into the water as a result of the sculpture altered the currents and indeed had a calming effect on the river.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My trip to the Buddha was lovely, though not quite what I expected. What I didn’t realize was that the giant Buddha is part of an entire Buddhist complex, complete with numerous temples and parks to walk around. What I also didn’t realize is the main part of the complex is level with the Buddha’s enormous head, providing an interesting and relatively close perspective to see just how huge his features are, as well as a bit of a surprise when you enter the grounds. But to see the big picture, you have to line up with the seemingly millions of Chinese people to make the long, slow, crowded descent to the bottom. Luckily, there are enough viewing spots along the way to allow you a good long view of this wonder, which really is pretty amazing. Once at the bottom, you can linger a little (not too long) to take even more photos, before exiting and making the long ascent back to the top.

As a city, Leshan was pleasant enough, but the sweltering temperatures made daytime wandering highly undesirable. I only expected to spend one day there, but since the lone daily bus to reach my next destination in Kanding was booked, I had to spend an extra day. So what to do? See the Buddha again, of course, this time from water :). In addition to (or instead of) battling the crowds on the temple grounds, you can take a pleasant 30-minute boat ride along the side of the cliff instead. Though you don’t get nearly as close to the sculpture or spend as much time viewing it as if you were on the grounds, the boat ride is really relaxing and provides a bigger, more-distant perspective and enables you to see the two flanking sculptures that aren’t visible on land.

Below is a short video of this amazing and striking sculpture and definitely one of the coolest Buddha’s I’ve ever seen.

The Big Jump

Standard
The Big Jump

“Darr Ke Aage Jeet Hai,” – Beyond Fear Lies Victory.

This Hindi saying, shared with me by my Indian friend Naren on convincing me to jump off a 160-meter bridge, is quite apt.

While some may disagree, I have realized in recent months how many of my decisions have been motivated by fear: fear of public perception, fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of regret. I’m not afraid to take risks, moving abroad and backpacking solo for nearly a year across Asia is evidence of that, but that doesn’t always extend to all parts of my life.

For me, bungy jumping was never even a consideration.

Aside from the fact I really had no interest in the activity, my mother had firmly ingrained this “bungy jumping is dangerous and equals sudden death” mentality into my head since I was a child. That stuff runs deep.

But the minute I landed in Kathmandu, Nepal and saw the bungy advertisements, something changed. My birthday was coming up, and somehow that firmly ingrained idea of “never” changed into “wouldn’t it be crazy if…” While 28 has never been considered a milestone, this birthday was coming near the end of my once-in-a-lifetime epic journey throughout Asia, and I knew I wanted it to be special.

Still, this was a long shot. Even if my thirst for adrenaline were to eventually rise to bungy-level, I was still on the white water rafting/rock climbing/parasailing stage, bungy jumping was an exponential leap up.

When I met up with Naren and semi-jokingly put forth the idea, I should have known better than to ask a guy who runs adventure sports camps for a living. His very enthusiastic “Yes, we’re doing it!” scared the daylights out of me. Though my reply was “Let me think about it,” my sharply rising anxiety levels told me the decision had already been made: I was going to jump.

For days my fake indecisive self was stressing. I suddenly found the need shop constantly and eat everything (how many momos are too many? ;)) and sleep was fleeting.

The night before, waiting last minute to hand over my $100 to the bungy agency, signing a “you-realize-you’re-jumping-off-a-bridge-wearing-only-an-elastic-band-it’s-not-our-fault-if-you-die-insane-person” waiver, my crazy levels rose yet again. I began running all over Kathmandu asking every person I met whether or not they had ever jumped from a 160 meter bridge and what they thought of it, while constantly chanting (or rather butchering) “Darr Ke Aage Jeet Hai” (luckily Naren is a very patient person and found my nuttiness rather amusing).

And then, the big day. The craziness peaked.

Nepal Bus Ride

On the bus ride to the bungy jump!

Aside from death, I was more realistically afraid of the intensity of the adrenaline rush and if the free fall would be too much for me, leaving with me memories of extreme terror and a fear of heights I did not have before.

But on the lovely five-hour bus ride through the mountains (which realistically, is WAY more dangerous), I decided that I could control my reaction to how this jump turned out and whether or not it would be a positive or negative experience. If I chickened out, I not only lost $100 but my pride. I was going to own this jump. Like a boss.

Step 1: Sleep deprivation. Deciding to pack four hours before your scheduled bus departure puts you in a loopy enough mood to soften the reality that you’re about to plunge yourself over a bridge into a massive canyon.

Step 2: High energy dance music. Probably the most fun part of our bus trip was Naren and I riding up the last strip rocking out to Rick Astley, Queen and Motown (“ ‘Cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough…” ;)) working ourselves into a manic frenzy to prepare ourselves.

Step 3: Don’t think. Just do.

When we finally reached the resort, I think everyone in the bus had a moment of “Oh $%!#! Are we actually doing this?” And then it was the briefing: stand here, hold this, don’t look down…

Bungy Canyon

The 160-meter drop down…

While I had actually signed up for traditional bungy, I opted last minute to switch to canyon swing, an equally terrifying jump in a harness that would put less strain on my bad knee and offer twice as long free fall time.

And then it was time to walk the plank. To my surprise, the line moves along rather quickly, and I was running out of chicken out moments. Harness on, inches from the jumping platform, I asked the jump master to give me a second to catch my bearings. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you get three.” Very funny, that one.

Erica Hobbs Bungy Jump

Freaking out before the big jump

As Naren waited a few feet behind me, anticipating a highly-dramatic, song-and-dance freak out routine, my mind went suddenly clear. I felt the pull of the canyon line, looked ahead to the mountains and did the only action required of me: I jumped.

The minute you step off the platform the decision is made. No more freak outs, no more opportunities to back out, all you can do is sit and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was.

Like a second before, my mind went blank, I didn’t even scream. Instead, I felt my eyes get very large as I took in the blurry mountains, trees and river that were rushing by all around me. For seven seconds, I was weightless, and though it was by far the biggest adventure rush I had ever had, it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. And when I felt the harness catch (yay, I survived!), the leisurely swing through the canyon provided one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Bungy Canyon Nepal

The view from the bungy bridge – in Panglang, Nepal, 12 km from the Tibetan border

But more incredible and unexpected than anything was the immense sense of satisfaction I felt afterward. I had faced my fears and won. And the feeling was truly victorious.

While it was only a jump, freeing yourself from the control of fear is one of the most liberating feelings ever. I’d like to think now that it will be easier to apply this “jump” to other aspects of my life as well.

If not, I suppose I can always try again. Skydiving anyone? 😉

After the Jump

Victorious – Darr Ke Aage, Jeet Hai!

Off the Beaten Track

Standard
Off the Beaten Track

I had barely awoken from a nap when two energetic young adults jumped into my carriage and asked if they could practice English with me.

In my groggy state, my immediate reaction was to avoid aggressive, young Asians, who usually had an ulterior motive or sale up their sleeves. But then I remembered I was in Myanmar, a gentle country, largely isolated from much of the world, and relaxed.

“Ok,” I replied.

I looked around and realized, despite having already traveled six and a half hours by train from Pyin U Lwin, we were only in Kyaukme, a small town still 20 miles away from Hsipaw, my final destination. I recognized the town from my guidebook, an alternative jumping off point to go trekking in the Shan state, which it had described as “far off the beaten track.” While this had initially interested me, the nice lady at the travel agency in Mandalay had quickly dismissed the idea, saying there was nothing to do at Kyaukme, and Hsipaw was the far better option.

To be fair, I had never really wanted to go trekking to begin with. But I had three days to kill before meeting up with my friends in Mandalay, and after months of playing it safe, I thought it might be a good idea to push my travel limits a little bit and try a destination less well-known.

As I began to chat, I remembered to speak slowly as we covered the basics: Where are you from? What is your name? What do you do?

The two, a 20-year-old boy and a 19-year-old girl, were students at one of the town’s English schools. Every night, they joined a handful of others in the small schoolhouse to learn English with one of the town’s few English speakers, other locals like themselves who’d taken great pains to learn English on their own. Not native English speakers themselves, the teachers encouraged the students to talk with Western visitors during the 30-minute train stop on the way to Hsipaw.

As the conversation continued, another teenager joined our group, and I immediately noticed his English was much more advanced than his peers. John was a university student studying English who worked part time as a tour and trekking guide to the few tourists who make it to Kyaukme. From the off-handedness of the information, I knew he wasn’t trying to sell me anything, yet there was something about him and this small town that interested me more. Small, soft-spoken with carefully-placed “messy” black hair, John looked younger than his 19 years. But his direct, yet polite, demeanor revealed a young man with big plans for himself. I pulled out my guidebook as we continued to chat, searching again for why I had planned on going to Hsipaw. Markets, temples, hills, Hsipaw had lots of attractions listed, while Kyaukme literally had none. I sighed. I liked these guys, but I was going to have to give Kyaukme a miss.

But as I heard the train horn sound to leave, something inside me changed. Before I realized what I was doing, I heard myself say, “Ok, I’ll stay!” and the boys quickly helped me grab my backpacks, as we scrambled off the train.

No guidebook, no fellow travelers, no recommendations, I had no idea what I was getting in to. But I was ready for adventure.

A small village in the eastern part of central Myanmar, Kyaukme has only one guest house licensed to host tourists, and John offered to drive me the short distance on his motorbike. As we rounded the corner to the guest house entrance, he pointed to the young man across the street chatting with an older white couple and told me that was his English teacher, Joy.

With only a few English schools in town, none with native speakers, Joy asked if I would mind dropping in to class to speak directly with the students, and I was happy to oblige.

Later that night I found myself at the “Best Friend English School,” a small classroom in a building in town. As John and I walked in, I realized I was interrupting a lesson on articles of clothing. About 10 students sat in long, rectangular tables facing their teacher who pointed to a pair of pants and a belt buckle drawn on the chalk board.

But despite his own lesson, the teacher warmly welcomed me to the class and immediately pushed me to the front to speak to the students directly.

As I stood in front of them, a bit nervous at first, I was greeted by a sea of smiling faces and a cup of tea. A fairly even mix of men and women stared back at me, all ranging from older teenagers and college students to young adults with established jobs or families.

I really had no idea what I was doing, so I decided to start slowly and see where things went. After a short introduction, the girls especially, seemed very interested in knowing about my life, and I found myself answering questions about my age, what I did, my marital status and what I thought of Myanmar. At some point, I found myself drawing a mitten on the chalkboard surrounded by some half-haphazard wavy lines as I pointed to my hometown(s) and explained Michigan’s shape, lakes, industries and surrounding states.

Kyaukme English School

Me with the students at “Best Friend English School” in Kyaukme, Myanmar

My second visit to the English school took me a little by surprise. Instead of a Michigan geography lesson, this time the teacher asked if I would teach the students a song. Luckily for them, I’m a bit of a diva ;).

Perhaps I was a little homesick, or maybe I just thought a sweet tune with simple, happy lyrics would be a great tool for teaching English, but the next thing I know I’m belting out “My Girl” by the Temptations and pointing to the words I’d scribbled on the board. To my delight, the students really seemed to enjoy themselves, and I got them to do a pretty good rendition of it, if I say so myself. It made me really happy to be able to share a little bit of my home state with them, even if it was in the form of a Motown song that came out 20 years before I was born :P.

Though I enjoyed teaching at the school, I had other ideas on how to spend my time in Kyaukme. As part of the volatile Shan state, the town is only a few hours away from some of Myanmar’s ethnic fighting between the Burmese state and the Shan people, fighting for greater autonomy.

While I was not interested in getting too close to the fighting, I was curious to explore one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and see how an entirely different group of people live among a controversial and repressive military regime.

To my delight, John was free to take me to the Shan mountain villages, and since he had his motorbike, I did not have to go trekking after all. It was perfect!

The next day, as promised, John met me bright and early for our journey to the Shan villages. Our plan was to visit three villages that day, sleep over in the last town and return to Kyaukme the next morning.

Helmets on, backpacks attached, we rode through the mountains past endless green rice paddies, grazing water buffalo and children playing in the fields. Surprisingly, we did not pass many other travelers on our two-hour long journey, though the all-encompassing dust resulting from the villagers’ annual burning season let us know that we were far from isolated.

Shan Mountains

Reaching our first destination, I discovered a scene that would repeat itself throughout the subsequent Shan villages. All around, wooden houses with corrugated tin roofs dotting along the windy, dirt road that looped its way through town. Tea leaves lay on mats outside, drying in the sun, as John explained that nearly every villager was a tea farmer. While largely quiet, men worked outside, chopping up bamboo stalks for building or weaving, while women took care of the housework, washing clothes, weaving fabric or preparing food. Nearby up the hill, children gathered in the village’s lone school house, repeating the chanting of the monks to learn their native Shan language.

In the middle of town, a small shop sold snacks, drinks and basic necessities, where adults and children alike gathered to pick up supplies, have a drink or simply to visit. And resting quietly at the top of every village lay a gold-covered pagoda, the town’s center for worship and most sacred point.

Kyaukme Pagoda, Myanmar

On my trip, John took me to visit several families he knew. While communication was limited, these people graciously invited me into their homes, offering me tea and sunflower seeds while I explored their houses. Surprisingly large, the wooden Shan houses were often two stories high, comprising of a main room, kitchen and one or two bedrooms containing basic beds or lots of open space for bamboo mats and blankets. Plastic or wooden chairs and tables filled corners, while photos of family members and children fulfilling their traditional monk duties dotted the walls. And in every home, a large cabinet full of Buddhas, flowers, incense and photos served as the family shrine. Out back, basic, outdoor faucets on concrete floors provided running water with wooden outhouses nearby.

Shan House

Inside a Shan House outside in the mountain villages outside Kyaukme, Myanmar

When we reached our final destination, John took me to the home of the village chief who often provided accommodation to the village’s visitors. While he was out of town, his wife made us a simple dinner of rice, eggs, peanuts and a watery vegetable soup. As the power was often out, sunset covered the town in a silent, all-encompassing blackness where even the stars’ vivid brilliance was not enough to keep the town awake.

Around 9:30 p.m. John and I headed up to the second floor to find our pillows, blankets and bamboo mats laid out among those of the female farm hands who come to the village seasonally to pick tea leaves. Despite the early hour, I fell asleep quickly in a surprisingly restful night sleep. Around 5:30 a.m. in a stereotypical rude awakening, the roosters began to crow to signal the start of a new day. While John wasn’t too keen on the early rise, I enjoyed watching the women prepare for their day, saying their morning prayers, combing their hair and carefully applying the bark-based thanaka paste to their faces to protect their skin from the Myanmar sun.

After breakfast, a large spread of noodles, peanuts and eggs, John and I said our goodbyes and began our descent back to Kyaukme.

While I never did make it to Hsipaw, my last-minute journey to Kyaukme ended up being one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made and a true adventure off the beaten track.

Though I know much of the rest of my travels will include the well-paved and well-shared roads to monuments, big cities and tacky souvenirs, I will be forever grateful knowing there is at least one memory that is all mine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.