The reflection in the mirror was virtually unrecognizable; the spelling of my name remained obscure; what might happen next had become a perpetual mystery. Before I could make sense of it all, burgundy-robed monks whisked me away, up a dusty spiral staircase, to their secluded 5th floor rooftop. With endearing fervor, the monks excitedly pulled out their smartphones, gathered around me as a group, and began snapping selfies, with me, against the backdrop of the Yangon skyline. Had I stumbled down the rabbit hole, only to arrive in Myanmar? I peered over the ledge to the chaos of once-familiar city life below; I became as dizzy as the moment was surreal.
I saw none of this coming, yet it was all going exactly as planned.
No guidebooks, no tour agencies, no beaten path; I promised myself this trip would be original. Long removed from my days as a wide-eyed tourist, and beyond my adventures as a gritty backpacker, I sought a new level of travel. I needed to find something real, something pure. Determined to bond with the local culture at its most intimate level, my goal was to connect with the cultural fabric and spiritual pulse of a land as distinctive and unique as any on earth. Armed with nothing more than kindness and a smile- the Buddha’s preferred weapons of choice- I hit the streets and began to explore. Myanmar beckoned.
I arrived in Yangon with a single backpack and an open mind. Sweltering heat consumes the city during the heart of the summer monsoon season. The downtown air was thick; the traffic frenzied. Decrepit buildings from the golden age of generations past wore their faded exteriors proudly, like battle scars earned fighting a silent war alongside the hopes and dreams of the Myanmar people. But behind those crumbling walls and cracked windows, the people smiled; endless, infinite smiles. Beneath the surface lay something beautiful and inspiring. I was intoxicated with wonder; the spirit of the Myanmar people was unlike anything I had ever come across.
Golden Buddhist pagodas pierced the sky amidst a backdrop of urban decay, symbolically reflecting the country’s shining optimism throughout its tumultuous political past. I browsed the street vendors; perusing the black market antiques, knock-off soccer jerseys, and countless varieties of Buddha statues. An old man with leathered skin and heavy eyes sat in a small plastic chair behind a table selling longyis, the traditional sarong worn by the men of Myanmar. These long, skirt-type of garments did not contain pockets or belt holes, yet were as ubiquitous as they were comfortable. I had to have one.
His eyes lit up as he presented me with an indescribably warm and heartfelt smile to accompany my new longyi. Those distinctive Myanmar smiles- heart-meltingly genuine, slightly bashful, and with a hint of laughter- were beyond infectious.
I wore my longyi with sandals and a T-shirt- typical Myanmar attire- but blend in, I certainly did not. Standing a relatively towering 6’2” with seemingly more hair on my beard and forearms than many locals had on their head, the stares of onlooker’s were palpable. Adults would greet me with a handshake and a smile, enthusiastically speaking whatever English they could muster. A man with pepper-grey hair and an animated demeanor rushed across a street to approach me and eagerly presented a faded, creased business card; above a local Yangon address the words “English Teacher” were written in large, bold letters. He introduced himself as Thein, and upon learning of my American heritage he asked me to volunteer at his English class that day. I thought about it for a moment, and became more excited by the second. I had been seeking a way to connect with the people, and the chance had found me. Perfect.