I want to share with good friends and family what my two-and-a-half month trip was like without pretending that I can do it in a short conversation. I am doing so with some of my favorite photos, along with some of the most powerful insights from along the way. So here you go!
The journey was more like two trips, west then east. I spent two-plus weeks in Italy over the holidays with my boyfriend Dan. Exploring Renaissance art, eating amazing food, walking together through the streets and passageways of Venice, Rome and Florence…pretty exceptional.
After New Year’s, Dan returned to New York, and I headed eastward to Burma, India and Cambodia (with bits of Hong Kong, Nepal and Malaysia woven in). I’ve always loved immersing myself in lands that are completely foreign and different from what I know, places that open up every sense door to new experiences.
In my travels to the East, I took a deep plunge into Buddhism — both practicing Buddhist meditation at a monastery in Burma for three weeks and trekking through India and Nepal to follow in the footsteps of the man, Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha after his awakening. More than fifteen years ago, I began practicing Buddhist meditation but during the marriage fights over the last decade-plus, I’d largely stopped. The Buddha’s teachings about what makes for a happy and fulfilling life have always resonated with me. I’ve found that examining and cultivating those teachings, through meditation, has been important and helpful.
The two Buddhist experiences — the retreat and the pilgrimage — were the anchors of my trip to the East, but in the countries I visited I also saw many sites and did my best to experience as much of real daily life as I could.
This is a journey best told with pictures, so let’s go!
First Stop — Venice
Getting off the train in Venice and observing a world of beautiful, ageless canals — and no roads! — was spectacular!
There were Santa gondoliers and, at some of the museums, bans on selfie sticks (which were the vending item of choice in Italy this holiday season).
In spite of the boat’s name, there was very little gay life in Venice (except for us!)
Some shocking Islamophobia here….
Soon after getting out of the taxi by our hotel, about 15 handsome young priests rounded the corner singing Christmas carols, one playing a guitar, bounding with energy towards Vatican City. Merry Christmas indeed!
We set off for some of the timeless, beautiful sites — like making wishes in the Trevi Fountain…
When in Rome at Christmastime, say hello to the Pontiff!
Walking the town, seeing the sites.
Worst wax image of President Obama ever! More George Jefferson than the president.
The only other time I’d been to Florence, it felt overrun with tourists and I experienced it almost as a Renaissance Disney World. This time it was magical…the art, the food, the holiday spirit, the city all lit up.
Oh yes, and David! I became obsessed with Michelangelo in general, and David specifically. We saw many of the Michelangelo sculptures and paintings in Italy….and, well, David!
Even David leather shops….who knew?
Our tour guide in the Vatican tried to explain to me that Michelangelo wasn’t really gay. But I was having none of it!
A putto (Italian: [ˈputto]; plural putti [ˈputti] or puttoes) is a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged. Putti are commonly confused with, yet are completely unrelated to, cherubim.
I’ve always sort of hated these little fat babies with wings. So in an attempt to confront the hatred head-on, I studied and photographed them.
Still not such a fan. Oh well.
On to Burma!
Dan headed back to NYC and I went the other direction. After a Milan =>Abu Dhabi => Bangkok => Yangon flight, it was time for a month in Burma (or Myanmar…both names are problematic, Burma because it’s the British colonial name and Myanmar because it’s the name the country’s evil military junta gave the country).
For me and Burma, it was love at first sight. Though it is an exceedingly poor country (the worst health care in the world according to the World Health Organization) — and has suffered through one of the world’s most oppressive regimes — the people I came into contact with as I walked the streets, examined the sites, ate at the restaurants, stayed in hotels, sat in the parks, and lived in the monastery and so on were exceedingly kind, gentle, helpful, and friendly. Crime against visitors there is almost unheard of.
It’s also Buddha-ville (80%+ of the country identifies as Buddhist)! On one of my first days in the capital city of Yangon, I saw some nun-lets (baby nuns in training…many Burmese over the course of their lives become monastics for days or weeks, some multiple times, and then return to being lay folks). I melted when I saw these girls round the corner with their begging bowls.
Buddha here. Buddha there. Buddha Buddha EVERYWHERE!
The central temple complex in Yangon, Shwedagon, is quite something. It’s the holiest Buddhist site in the city, more than 1,000 years old, and the hub of unbelievable activity with dozens of mini-temples surrounding the main stupa. Four ATMs. Wireless coverage for the whole temple. It’s really a one-stop-shop meet-up / hang out / worship center. One of the fun things to watch: cell-phones are just gaining a foothold in Burma (because until recently, the evil government charged thousands of dollars for a sim card to control information). But now, everyone has them and people all around the temple were taking photos and selfies, with great delight.
Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now? Rudyard Kipling on Shwedagon Temple
The political junkie I am, for me the highlight of Yangon was catching the Aung San Suu Kyi bug. The heroine of the Burmese freedom movement, she’d famously been under house arrest for most of the time from 1989 through 2010. But she stood strong and wouldn’t back down, and finally when the junta allowed for real elections in November 2015, her party won 86 percent of seats in the assembly. Her transition to power is scheduled for early April, and the world will be watching.
This photo is at her political party’s campaign headquarters in Yangon, where there was a buzz of happy people milling about. I bought lots of National League for Democracy schwag — T-shirts, hats, magnets, posters — and as I walked around over the next few weeks wearing some of it, many, many Burmese people gave me a big smile and thumbs up for supporting “The Lady,” as they call her.
This is outside of her home, where she was kept under house arrest. The photo of the man below is her father, Aun Sang, considered the father of modern Burma and the leader of the liberation fight against the British.
Here I am with Hla Myat Tun, who runs the national LGBT advocacy group Colors Rainbow. I was hugely impressed with his organizing acumen and what they’ve been able to accomplish. With the change in government in April, there are high hopes for big positive strides for equality in this country where same-sex intimate activity is illegal (thanks to the British penal code and an oppressive government that looked to any restriction to control its people).
I am huge!
Starting in Burma and continuing for the entire two months, I realized how huge I was compared to my Asian friends. A number asked to take pictures with me, and even more just stared at me! Twas fun!
Begin the Bagan
I next journeyed from Yangon to Bagan, where remnants of more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments built between the 9th and 13th centuries adorn the landscape. I walked, biked and motorbiked to and around the structures, but nothing was as spectacular as ballooning over them!
Many in Burma have incorporated an animist worship of nats, or spirit-gods, into their Buddhist practice. One of the beliefs is that transgender women are shamans who interface between the earthly world and the spirit world. I was so lucky to get to watch a ceremony!
The Sagaing hills across the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay are the hub of Buddhism in Burma. Hundreds of monasteries are situated there, many hundreds of years old. I joined a group of 25 westerners in a three-week monastic-style retreat at Kyaswa Monastery.
Each day, we woke at 3:30 in the morning and practiced sitting and walking meditation all day and evening in silence, with daily talks on the Buddha’s teachings by our American and Burmese teachers and one-on-one interviews with our teachers. It was a magnificent three weeks, a chance to get to know myself — and my mind — much better and gain more insight into what brings me happiness…and what fools me into thinking it brings me happiness (my iPhone = one, moment-by-moment following of the elections = another!). I dreamed over and over that the Kansas City Chiefs had made the Super Bowl (since I couldn’t watch or follow)…only to be disappointed when the retreat ended!
My home was a sparse “kuti” with no hot water. I learned how to mix hot water from a thermos with cold tap water to create water warm enough for comfortable bathing and shaving.
Our western teachers were Steven Smith and Michele McDonald (on the left…I bet you could guess that!) and our Burmese teacher was Sayadaw U Pannananda, the one wearing the cap.
Here’s our whole group in our monastery on the last day of the retreat!
The Irrawaddy River was a constant presence wherever I was in Burma, flowing for 1,350 miles through the country’s heart. On the right is sunrise at our monastery looking over the river. On the left is a photo from Bagan where I took a boat ride on the river.
On the last couple of days of the retreat, I finally was able to speak with my fellow practitioners. Among them was this amazing woman, Gerti Elias, whose late husband was Anne Frank’s first cousin. He ran the Anne Frank Fonds (foundation), which was charged with distributing the funds from Anne Frank properties including sales of the diary, and she was very involved as well. When I grew tired on the retreat, I’d look to octogenarian Gerti for inspiration!
Many years ago, our western teachers Steve and Michele created a not-for-profit called MettaDana to support the village where the monastery is located (for a number of years they were on the government’s black-list, prohibited from entering, I guess because they were helping people too much). At the center of their efforts is Wachet Village School, which MettaDana built and helps maintain. The last day of the retreat, I got to do one of the most magical things ever: present students at the school with their new school uniforms. Images of delighted Burmese children are forever etched into my mind. Some of the photos are below.
After a few days refueling with great college friends in Hong Kong, I headed to Cambodia. First stop for five days was the incredible ruins of Angkor, one of the great wonders of the world. They are the remains of temples of the Khmer Empire, built between the 9th and the 15th century. The photos tell their story best.
To me, three things made these monuments so exceptional — the number and vastness of the structures, the intricacy of the carvings, and the spectacular beauty of giant trees growing under, through, and around some of the structures. The one downside was learning about the brutal force that was deployed to get these monuments built.
In Cambodia, the wars that ravaged the country during much of the second half of the 20th century are still felt everywhere (America’s carpet bombing of villages along Cambodia’s border with Vietnam, using nearly 3 million tons of bombs, killed hundreds of thousands, and the evil Khmer Rouge regime killed or was responsible for the deaths of as many as 2 million of 8 million residents during its reign in the 1970s).
Below are musicians who all lost limbs from land mines playing near one of the Angkor ruins.
This Angkor ruin had the below sign next to it.
The below museum was created by a man who was forced to join the Khmer Rouge at the age of 10, planted thousands of land mines, and then began a crusade to eliminate land mines throughout Cambodia and educate the world about their evils. And yes, those are artificial limbs below.
I loved walking around this capital city with its French colonial architecture, teaming markets, funky restaurants and bars, and walkway along the Mekong River.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
This museum was devastating. Housed at a school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture chamber, it told the story of the torture and murders of more than 10,000 people — a small percentage of the 2 million who were slaughtered by, or died at the hands of, the Khmer Rouge.
I met two of the very few survivors of the prison. Both had written books on their experience.
Cambodia is among the most corrupt countries in the world. Even though elections are held, Hun Sen — the guy on the left below — has killed and browbeat his way into running the country for more than 25 years. His political party’s signs are all over the place. Interestingly, so are those of his lead opponent (who has fled the country because of warrants for his arrest for “defamation”).
Cambodians love the Buddha (it’s the most Buddhist country in the world!)
I had the good fortune of meeting with the lead LGBT organizer in the country, Srun Srorn, who runs CAM-ASEAN, working for equality in Cambodia and throughout the ASEAN nations. He’s a super-talented, visionary, and tireless organizer (among the cool things he’s done: organizing 50 same-sex couples from throughout the country who have been together for 50 years or more!). Legally and culturally there’s a long way to go in Cambodia, but homosexuality is not illegal and there is a quite open and active gay scene in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (I think there are more gay bars in Phnom Penh than Boston!).
Notwithstanding the horrific history, the oppressive government and the deep poverty, I was moved by the kindness of the people I encountered. I took a long bike ride by myself through the countryside along dirt roads, and it seemed like every child I passed looked up, smiled and waved. I know this is a superficial measure, but it felt quite telling to me.
These photos are all from the bike ride. In the frame on the left, women are fishing by hand in pools of mud. When I stopped on my bike to look, they all got huge smiles on their faces and showed me what they were doing.
Nothing prepares you for India. Not New York. Not Yangon or Phnom Penh. The chaos, the people, the animals, the people, the people, THE PEOPLE. Driving is wild and scary. And yet I loved it. It’s the country to which I most want to return (in part because there’s so much I didn’t get to see).
Loving on Gandhi!
This is the site where the liberator of India lived the last days of his life until his assassination. Below are his simple bed and his most prized possessions. His status in India is tremendous. One tangible sign: he adorns every piece of paper money!
My favorite site in Old Delhi — which is the most congested, crazy part of New Delhi — was the Jama Mosque, pictured below. The massive plaza was a great gathering spot for people of all stripes.
Waiting for the call to prayer…(there are 175 million Muslims in India!)
Down the street at the Sikh temple! Digging my pink Dastaar…
As I walked through the wedding shop section of Old Delhi, I could only think of how much business they’d get if they allowed the gay to marry (sadly, homosexuality is STILL criminalized in India…hopefully, the high court will finally do the right thing — as of this February, they’re reconsidering the constitutionality of the ban on homosexuality).
In the Footsteps of the Buddha
For two weeks, I traveled with Shantum Seth and 30 pilgrims on an intensive tour following the Buddha’s path more than 2,500 years ago from birth to awakening to building a cadre of followers to death. It was an exceptional experience on several levels: walking in the literal steps of Siddhartha Gautama, the person who became the Buddha, at the crucial sites of his lifelong journey; examining how Buddhists from throughout the world honor those sites; and witnessing how people live in rural parts of India and Nepal far off the usual beaten path.
Here’s a map with markers on the key places we visited.
The highlight for me was visiting Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree and awakened to a pathway of freedom from suffering, which he then shared with others.
Here I am with other meditators sitting under the massive Bodhi Tree that is supposed to be the descendant of the original tree….
More scenes from Bodh Gaya.
The man who led our trip, Shantum Seth, pictured below, is a passionate leader engaged in protecting the Buddhist sites in India and building on the Buddhist legacy there. He first developed this “In the Footsteps of the Buddha” pilgrimage for Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh more than two decades ago and has been at it ever since.
Key sites on the pilgrimage…
Loved being part of this amazing group of travelers (most are pictured here).
And all of us together at one of the most powerful sites, Vulture Peak, where the Buddha enjoyed meditating.
A trip to India isn’t complete without exploring the spectacular Taj. For me, even cooler than studying the building was people-watching. People from all over the world (including all over India) come to visit and take pictures in front of the iconic structure.
More photos from the pilgrimage
While homosexual intimate contact is illegal in India, they’re more enlightened in some respects than we are in the USA. Check out this box for “other” gender on the immigration form (same thing for Nepal!).
Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganges)
During my travels in India, I saw the Ganges River — sacred in the Hindu religion — at several points: far in the north flowing out of the Himalayas, and in the cities of Rishikesh, Heridwar and Varinasi (where I took the plunge, below — don’t Google the cleanliness of the water there!).
At Varanasi, it’s thought to be especially holy to bathe in the river prior to death and to be cremated there. As a result, many elderly people approaching death come to the city. The photo below is at a crematorium on the banks of the river. Here, family members and friends are watching their loved ones being cremated.
More from Varanasi
At Heridwar, pilgrims walk hundreds of miles to get water from the Ganges to bring back for ceremonies. Along the highway, we’d often see joyous people carrying festive, flower-adorned wooden gismos for carrying water, heading to or from Heridwar. The city was especially colorful, with lots of orange (my favorite color!).
Last stop in India: the Himalayan hill station of Mussoorie
My guide and now friend Jagdish (pictured below with his family) took me around the beautiful, cool foothills of the Himalayas, where the magical snow-capped peaks emerged from the haze periodically.
We went on an elephant safari for an afternoon — we saw lots more pretty spotted deer than elephants, but we did see 8 or 9 of the big guys in the distance.
I’d been watching cricket for my entire tour in India, finding it fascinating that it was the sport of choice for kids everywhere. It seemed as though in nearly every open space along our journey, kids were playing with makeshift balls and bats. Thanks to Jagdish, in Mussoorie I finally had my chance to give it a try. After whiffing at the first ball, I pounded the second one on a line past the defenders. Proud indeed!
Spirit of India
For me, this picture captures India terrifically. About 20 young men joyfully hanging off the back, top and sides of a truck after traveling a great distance on India’s crazily chaotic roads to pay a visit to the Ganges. I waved at them, and many of them enthusiastically waved back, with giant grins on their faces.
In the end, I don’t think I attained Nirvana…
And I can promise you that the sign below is not an accurate representation of the accommodations in the Indian land of the Buddha…
But they didn’t need to be. The experience was profound on so many different levels — recalling and learning of the Buddha’s teachings, observing and learning from so many followers from across the world, and especially connecting with so many lovely, friendly, kind and inquisitive people — in India and in Burma and Cambodia. In each country, young people repeatedly came up to me, asked me where I was from, and tried to connect in whatever ways they could based on our abilities to communicate.
Four young Indian men in particular stick in my memory. I was sitting on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh, my feet soaking in the ice cold water, writing in my journal, and grieving a bit about my iPhone which had taken a death plunge into the Ganges with me the day before. One of them sat right down next to me and asked me, in very broken English, where I was from. He wanted to ask me more, so one of his buddies jumped in and translated. They tried to get me to join them swimming in the Ganges (I was dressed and politely refused). After joyously splashing around with one another for awhile, they got out and bought snacks from a vendor, including one for me! And the guy who had first sat down next to me wrote his name in my journal, asking me to friend him on Facebook. These four — and so many others I met along the way — were people who by our material standards had nothing. And yet to my eye, they seemingly had so very much. That’s my deepest learning from this trip.