My life in New York was a series of scheduled moments. Wake up, walk the dog, go to the gym, shower, eat breakfast, go to work, come home for lunch, walk the dog, back to work, grocery shop, eat dinner, walk the dog, watch tv, sleep, repeat. Weekends weren’t much different. Every second was scheduled to make sure I got the most out of my day and that I didn’t forget anything. I was constantly checking my clock making sure I wasn’t running a minute or even a second late.
Jump ahead to my life in Myanmar, and you almost wouldn’t recognize the same person. Somehow, mostly against my own will, I’ve learned to completely let go. And I can’t help but wonder why? What is it about Myanmar that has made me so zen? What happened to the uptight, minute counting monster that constantly took over in New York? Where was that hard working, efficient, go getter? And why didn’t I miss her?
The truth is, you can’t really be in control in Myanmar, and pretending you are is laughable. If you have a schedule you might as well throw it out the window. Hell, even if you bought a ticket for a bus, chances are it won’t actually show up at that time. And when it does finally show up, it’s bound to make weird stops that make no sense to you. When you finally get up the nerve to ask why you’re stopping, you’ll receive a “no problem” and a head nod in response.
Micromanaging in Myanmar is just asking for it. My first week, I asked a driver if we would have a toilet break on our eight hour journey. He nodded and said, “toilet, yes.” A little later we pulled over. I worked my way off the bus and over to the bathroom. It was a shed, leaning at a 45 degree angle. I pictured those cartoons where a butterfly lands on something and it just collapses. Regardless, I went, not sure if we’d stop again. A half hour later we stopped at a rest area with a restaurant, toilets, and the works. If only I’d waited.
And so I stopped asking unnecessary questions. Where would we eat? When would we get there? Where would we sleep? What time is it? Instead, I had to accept whatever happened. This caused some anxiety, until I started to realize that I had no control over these things anyway. Who really cared where we would eat? I don’t know any restaurants in Myanmar. I had no better alternative.
Turns out, the bus would stop more than enough times. Every two hours there was a bathroom break, plus a half hour for lunch and twenty minutes for tea time. Although the bus would often drop you on the outskirts of town, there’d always be a cab waiting to take you where you needed to go. That’s how Myanmar works. You always get where you’re going, you just have no idea how. I swear the phrase “We’ll get there when we get there,” was invented here.
But traveling isn’t the only problem. Understanding a completely different culture has it’s challenges as well. The ongoing joke is how there are eight days of the week, but no one seems to know why. I could simply google it, but that kind of takes away the fun. Also, the cars drive on the right hand side of the street, but the steering wheel is also on the right. Apparently, the ruler had a dream that the country was leaning too far to the left so he made them change all the steering wheels to the right. Somehow, this answer just leads to more questions.
Sometimes the power goes out at a restaurant, and it’s as if nothing happened. Even the staff go on about their business in the dark without a worry that it will come back on. Same goes for wifi and hot water. If it stops working, life continues and no one tries to fix it. Eventually, it will work again.
When I think of all the times I could have gotten angry or frustrated on this trip, it seems limitless. But that’s the beauty of Myanmar. You can either be on the edge of a mental breakdown or accept the inevitable. Things won’t work the way you want, but they probably won’t be that bad either. Sometimes, they’ll even end up better than you planned.
The truly brilliant part is not thinking about the future. Once you accept that you won’t get an answer to your questions, you stop worrying about them. Suddenly you find yourself living in the present. Something I’ve been trying to learn in yoga (unsuccessfully) for almost a year. Once we stop trying to get where we’re going, we can enjoy the actual moment we’re in.
I’m constantly guilty of moving onto the next thing. In college, I wanted nothing more than to have a job and no homework. When I got a job, I wished I was on vacation. When I was on vacation, I was so worried about making the most of the measly two weeks I had that I barely stopped to enjoy it.
Maybe that’s the answer. For once in my life, I’m not in a rush to be anywhere. I’m in a country where schedules are more of a guideline. Somehow in all of the chaos, I’ve managed to find my own sense of calm. Stopping in the middle of a hike to let the sun hit my face and take a deep breath. Asking the boat driver to stop just to see how watercress float. Taking a moment to look around and say “Wow, this is my life.”
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.