Biking in Roma

Rome is not a biking city. The city is chaotic. The taxi drivers are aggressive assholes. The motorino drivers are even more aggressive assholes. There are very few streets that have bike lanes. And the cobblestones…well…they’re rough on the bike and rougher on the body.

Adam and I have the best commute! It takes just ten minutes to get to work by bike, and most of the route is on streets that are either pedestrian only, or restricted to buses and taxis only, so the traffic is not too bad and we don’t get run over by the crazy lunatic Roman drivers. Along the way we pass the Imperial Forum, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum.


Obviously this is the most amazing commute I have ever had, and surely the most amazing commute I ever will have!!! But…the Colosseum is the sooooooo annoying to bike through…because TOURISTS. Tourists are especially terrible at the Colosseum because it is so BIG. They’re always stepping backwards to try to get more of the structure to fit in their photos. They don’t look before they step! They stare at their cell phones, step backwards and sideways, and they don’t look. They’re the worst!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I completely realize I am a jerk for complaining! It’s the Colosseum! It’s crowded BECAUSE it is the Colosseum! I try to remind myself this every time I bike through, and try to find ways to enjoy this part of the commute. When there are people posing for pictures, as I bike past them I look directly at the camera and smile. I imagine that there are people all over the world who go home and show their friends the photo of the idiot biker who photo bombed their picture.

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The Problem with Google Translate

About a week ago I got a nasty gastrointestinal virus, which left me in bed, feverish, and quite miserable for days. I’ve basically recovered, but because of some lingering “tummy issues” I decided to get a stool sample test just for some peace of mind…

Before going to the pharmacy, I used Google Translate to find out how to say stool sample kit in Italian. I then went to the pharmacy and confidently asked for a “kit campione sgabello,” the phrase that Google Translate suggested was the translation for stool sample kit. The pharmacists looked at me like I was a complete moron. They had no idea what I was asking for.

I described what I was looking for, and they easily figured it out and I bought the stool sample kit. Then the pharmacist said “questo e un sgabello” (“this is a stool”), and reached down to pick up… a step stool. Ha! Of course! Also FML.

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Final days of vacation

On our last day in Myanmar, we returned to the big city, Yangon. We spent our day just hanging out, eating in some of the city’s posher restaurants, including the Rangoon Tea House, inspired by typical Burmese teahouse culture but actually more of an upscale yuppie eatery. For dinner we ate a a restaurant named Rau Răm, where my friend’s friend’s ex-boyfriend is the chef! This is not exactly a close connection, but how many chefs do I know in the world…let alone Myanmar!

We also went to an incredibly awesome store, with tons of artifacts from all over Myanmar. There were paintings, sculptures, Buddhas and more Buddhas, tons of lacquer ware, and large pieces of intricately carved and hand painted furniture. It was a really incredible collection, more like a museum than a store. Every corner was bursting with stuff. Inside every piece of amazing furniture, every shelf was filled with more stuff. There was an antique British diving helmet – like something out of a movie – when do you see these things in real life?!?! The rest of the clientele were spending thousands of dollars and discussing six star hotels (yes – six stars – who knew that even existed!), while their personal drivers waited for them outside the store… so…we didn’t exactly fit in…but who cares! The store owner was one of the only people we met during our entire trip who spoke English well enough to discuss politics, so we attempted to ask him about the political situation in Myanmar…but he refused to take the bait.

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On our way back to Rome, we had another ten hour stopover in Singapore. Adam kept us on an aggressive schedule, and we saw a LOT. We walked through an incredible park with creative architecture like nothing I have ever seen before. We ate extremely excellent Japanese food…twice. We walked through Chinatown, which was insanely crowded as they had just set up the night markets in preparation for Chinese new year. We hung out along the water front. It was a great day, and a great end to our wonderful vacation.

Our return to real life was ROUGH. I got a terrible cold. In addition, while we were away, our pipes had been leaking into the restaurant we live above, so we were not allowed to use the heat and hot water during our first days back, which happened to coincide with a cold spell. Our landlord and his plumber played a fun game of cat and mouse, digging a series of holes into our kitchen floor in the hopes of finding the leaking pipe. They never found the leak, but the hot water somehow stopped leaking into the restaurant. This is the second leak in our building that magically just stopped leaking on its own..obviously this makes no sense, but as long as I have heat and hot water I am quite content!

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Inle Lake

The next stop on our trip was Inle Lake! According to our careful research before we departed, the weather in Myanmar would be perfect for our whole trip, and we had packed accordingly!

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Ha! Our first two days in Inle Lake, it poured. We asked at the hotel what there was to do at Inle Lake in the rain, and the woman behind the desk giggled and said “Nothing!” We didn’t believe her so we found a local tourist agency. Again we asked what there was to do in the rain, and again a woman behind a desk giggled and said “Nothing!” We hung out under a hotel awning, playing pool with the rainy day in the background.

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Before we left for Myanmar, we had planned to do a trek with a local guide, who had specifically told us that there was no need to bring rain gear since it was the dry season. He called the day before the trek and advised us that his last trekking group had canceled and we probably should too. We changed our itinerary, canceled the trek, and lamented the weather which was predicting another three days of rain.

But we got lucky! The next day the rain stopped, and we had a great few days in Inle Lake. During one of our days there we rented bikes and followed a circuit route around lakeside villages, stopping along the way at hot springs, temples, and a winery. The highlight of the bike route was when we crossed the lake by boat with our bikes, so that we could make our way back along the other side of the lake.

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The next day we hired a boat tour to take us around on the lake all day, where we saw life along the lake – fishermen, kids playing and adults washing, floating villages, two temples, and the jumping cat monastery. Supposedly the cats at the jumping cat monastery used to actually be trained to jump through hoops, but now they are just regular cats who do no tricks. I was lucky enough to have a sweet cat come snuggle up to me all on her own. Adam tried to pet a cat but she scratched him and he bled.

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Anyone who has ever traveled in Southeast Asia knows that by the end of your trip, you’ve seen so many temples that they all start blending together, and it takes a truly special one to make an impression. The final stop on our boat ride was at an incredible temple – it had hundreds of stupas in varying levels of repair and disrepair. There were also tons of puppies roaming around, and I will gladly take puppies over cats (sorry Aunt Paula, and any other cat lovers out there) any day.

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Finally, of exciting and noteworthy news to nobody other than me…our hotel was right near the Department of Agricultural and Land Management Statistics! This is highly exciting for someone working in the statistics department at FAO, and probably not quite as exciting to everyone else!!!        🙂

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Mandalay 

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city. The city iself is kind of generic and not particularly nice – there are a few sites to see in the city, and a bunch more to see in the surrounding areas outside the city. To be honest, we might have skipped Mandalay altogether, but we were meeting our friends Seth and Maryana for NYE. We ended up spending most of our time in Mandalay with them, so even though it was a less exciting destination, we had a really great time with them hanging out and sightseeing! 

The city center has an old palace which was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in 1996. Although it is one of the main sites to see in Mandalay, based on the excessive number of extremely negative reviews we read, we decided to skip it.

Instead we went to some of the city’s other sites, which were actually pretty cool, including Shwenandaw Monastery, made of teak wood with incredibly detailed carvings, and Kuthodaw Pagoda, a pagoda surrounded by 729 shrines, with each shrine containing a giant marble slab with Burmese Buddhist writings on both sides – together these make up the world’s largest book. Just like in Bagan, all tourists are on the sunset shedule, and we attended the requisite sunset viewing on Mandalay Hill.

Teakwood monastery

No ladies here!

Shrines containing the world’s largest book

One slab of the world’s largest book

Sunset from Mandalay Hill

At night we went to see a performance by the Moustache Brothers (actually two brothers and one cousin). They’ve been performing shows that combine political satire with traditional Burmese dance for years, and became internationally famous when their jokes landed them in jail in the 1990s and they were sentenced to hard labor for seven years. Amnesty international and a host of others got involved to help get them out, and they continued performing. Now two of the brothers have died, and the remaining brother and his family members (who also perform) are quite old. The performance takes place in a garage, and the family still lives upstairs. Online we read very mixed reviews and weren’t sure what to expect.  It was super low budget (which actually added to the atmosphere) and the English was hard to understand, but it was funny, highly interactive and a really unique experience. We loved it! 


The next day the four of us arranged for a tour guide (actually just a man with a license and a vehicle and zero English skills) to take us around for the day. 

In the morning we went to a monastery and school for monks/novice monks/pre-novice monks to watch the monks’ morning assembly. What I always find incredible when I see large groups of monks is how so many individuals can appear so the same while still being individuals. They dress the same, they all have shaved heads, and for the most part they all maintain a neutral expression (with the exception of the occasional young monk you catch smiling – which I love). But they’re all individuals too, with families at home in the cities they’re from. 

On this particular day, we found one monk who was extremely eager to practice his English and talk to us. We had a really nice conversation, which other tourists dropped in to listen in on since most of the other monks keep to themselves and don’t interact with the tourists. After learning a lot about life as a monk, and becoming his Facebook friend, we went off sightseeing for the rest of the day. 

For me, one highlight of the day was dropping by a school. We interacted with the kids, played and talked with them, and Adam jumped rope with the little girls. I was particularly annoyed when another tourist actually interrupted my conversation with a kid who wanted to practice his English to ask me to move so he could get his perfect photo. Maybe he should come out from behind his lens and have an experience once in a while. Obviously I also want great photos with no tourists in them, but sometimes you have to wait, take a different photo, or even (gasp) stop taking photos to more fully be in the moment and live the experience. That’s the deal. 

The best part of the day was U-Bein bridge. This iconic bridge is one of THE things that shows up in every guidebook or postcards collection of Myanmar. We grabbed a boat and beer to watch the sunset. Every photo was photogenic and incredible. Simply amazing. 

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Sunsets over Bagan

Apparently the thing to do in Myanmar is to watch the sunset. All tourists (and therefore everyone working in the tourism industry) is on the sunset schedule. What that means is traffic starts about an hour before sunset, as tourists rush to their chosen sunset location of the day. Bagan is the most magical place and has truly amazing sunsets overlooking plains full of scattered pagodas and temples everywhere you look. 

The best way to get around in Bagan is by e-bike. As children, my mom used to make me and my brother promise to never ride motorcycles. But she never said there was anything wrong with riding an e-bike! E-bikes are basically battery powered scooters, and the tourists are only allowed to go up to 15-20 miles per hour. On our first afternoon in Bagan, Adam and I rented e-bikes and went to se our first Bagan pagoda. According to the map, there were two routes we could take to get there – one on the main road and one on the back road. We thought it would be nicer to take back roads with less traffic, but the hotel recommended we take the main road route. They didn’t have the English skills to explain why, so we accepted their recommendation and were on our way. The e- bikes were tons of fun! 


We made it to our first pagoda in time to watch the sun go down, unfortunately elbow to elbow with tons of people who had also chosen this popular sunset viewpoint. Despite the crowd, it was impossible to be disappointed by the amazing view, and we happily watched the sun set over a magical landscape. When the sun finished setting, everyone clapped and a few people (errr…me)  whooped too! 

After the sunset, we made our way to Dhammayangyi Temple. This temple was built by King Narathu – he killed his father and brother to take the throne himself, but later he felt bad about it (guess he didn’t think that through?!?!) and built this temple to atone for his sins. Known for being the spooky temple, we read that it was especially fun to explore at night with a flashlight when nobody else was around. We could see according to the map that a small back road would take us straight there. No big deal, we stupidly thought, as we powered up our e-bikes and sped off. We soon learned why the hotel recommended we stick to the main roads – – – the little roads were made of sand and the e-bikes just can’t handle them. But forward we had to go! By combining some light acceleration and pushing with our feet, we eventually made it! And man was it spooky! We entered from a side entrance and climbed through a fence to get inside (not realizing that the main entrance was around the corner). It was really dark, and there were bats flying around all over. We tiptoed around barefoot, through dark scary hallways and past dark lit buddhas, and then made our way home (this time via the main road) to meet our friends, Seth and Maryana, for dinner.


The next day we rented e-bikes again and went sightseeing all day. After making sure to check out all the “must-see” main temples, we went to explore the lesser known and less busy ones. As you ride around you pass temple after temple, and you can choose to stop at any one you want. Some are kept locked and a local family holds the key, and they open it up for you when you stop by. 


As we were about to leave one of these random temples that had an exceptional view, Seth and Maryana somehow passed by! They pulled over and we got some amazing photos with them.


After that we rode over to the river and grabbed a boat and a beer to watch the sunset. 


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Yangon

Our trip began in Yangon, previously known as Rangoon, and Myanmar’s largest city. The city is clearly undergoing a lot of development, with lots of construction projects underway, but at the same time has a lot of buildings that have not been restored. Adam referred to it as “romantic decay.” We both loved the look. 

We walked all over the city and went to two pagodas, Sule Pagoda in the middle of a busy roundabout, and Shwedagon Pagoda, part of an amazing and ENORMOUS complex.

We also stopped by a large handicrafts, jewelry, antiques, and textiles market, where I found tons of buttons with my little brother’s initials! It you ask me, RP stands for Ross Pollack…but apparently here people think it stands for Rangoon Police…

We went to the night market for dinner. The night market is lined with stalls of meats and vegetables. You choose your skewers and put them in a basket, then hand them to the waiters to take back to the kitchen to grill up for you.  It was awesome. 

So far I’ve learned two words in Burmese: hello = mingalaba, thank you = chizuba. I practice my new words with everyone I meet. Especially babies. Anyone who has ever walked down the street with me knows I wave at every baby I pass, no matter the country. On our way home from the night market I waved at a baby and said mingalaba.  The baby was so happy and the mom was so excited! She picked up the baby and stuck him in my face for a kiss!  An unexpected and adorable highlight of my day! 

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