Sometimes an experience far from home can be a time for personal reflection and emotional restoration. That’s what Florence Meyers, from Hudson, New York, discovered on her recent Myths and Mountains trip to Myanmar with her husband, Victor.
During their trip, the Meyers’ guide, Saan, invited them to witness a special memorial ceremony for his father, who had passed away a month earlier. “We went to his house and met his mother and his sisters. Community members came to their home, and we all sat in the living room in front of the altar with a Buddha and flowers and other offerings,” Florence remembers. Then five monks were invited to come in. They sat down in front of the group, and chanted, with the community answering. Following the prayers, tables were set in front of the monks, who were served food on behalf of the community. “I had read in one of the guidebooks that the way the Burmese tend to their guests is that they feed you but don’t eat; they just make sure your plates are filled,” Florence says. “That’s what they did, and then they gave each monk an envelope containing money since the monks live only on offerings.”
Once the monks had finished and the remnants of their meal had been cleared away, Florence, Victor, and Saan were invited to sit down, and were treated to a meal in the same way. Along with the wonderful openness of the community, what made the experience even more special for Florence was the fact that her own mother had died two months earlier. “So in the midst of this frenzied two-week vacation I got a chance to sit quietly and think about my mother,” Florence reflects. “It enabled me to witness a ritual in a cultural context that had meaning. I have my own rituals in my religion, but this was Buddhist.”
Another aspect that made the ceremony special was that Florence and Victor felt like part of the ritual rather than mere observers. “Before we even went to our guide’s house he took us to a bakery in Mandalay to buy special sweets to feed the monks. So we were even a part of the preparation for this ceremony. And of course the bakery was a very different thing from what we were used to.”
In addition to Myanmar, Florence and Victor have also traveled to the Galapagos and Vietnam with Myths and Mountains. One thing that keeps them coming back, Florence says, is that everything is “hassle free. I just trust where they take us and what they show us. The trips are always geared toward our interests, whether it be local culture or local customs, and they always provide the insider look.”
Another aspect of Myths and Mountains trips that Florence loves is the spontaneous experiences that arise along the way – often because of Myths’ local connections, but sometimes through pure serendipity. She recalls another occurrence from their Myanmar trip: “We were driving along a very dusty road near Bagan, and we had to stop the car because there was a herd of oxen crossing the road. It was just so colorful and dusty. My husband loves to take pictures, so he jumped out of the car. There was a group of children along the side of the road, and he started photographing them. Then their mothers came by and motioned for us to follow them.” The Meyers followed the women and children down another dusty road to a complex where an extended family lived. When they arrived, the family was busy harvesting peanuts. “There were 25 or 30 people sitting with piles of peanuts that they were harvesting from the vines. They let us take pictures, then took us around their houses and showed us how they lived. They gave us something to eat and were just really open and welcoming. It was a really special treat.”
Even more typical tourist experiences were often transformed as the result of unexpected encounters. Many travelers to Myanmar visit monasteries, but for Florence and Victor, a visit to a large monastery near Mandalay turned into an inside look at the healthcare services available to the monks. Florence recalls, “Somehow – I’m not sure how it happened – we were introduced to one of the head monks. We had been told that there was a hospital in this monastery, which is unusual, but it’s a very big monastery with several hundred monks.” The daughter of a doctor and the sister of another, Florence was curious, so the monk took them to see the hospital, which Florence describes as “more like an infirmary.” She says, “I got to poke through some of the cabinets and see what medicines were there. They also had a dental area with the kind of equipment we had in this country 40 years ago. Almost everything is donated.” It was an insider’s view of life in the monastery that few visitors ever get to glimpse.
In addition to being repeat Myths and Mountains travelers, the Meyers have referred relatives and friends, and took their adult children along on their Vietnam and Galapagos trips. For now, what’s next on their agenda is a visit to San Francisco to meet their new grandchild. But chances are Florence and Victor will soon be planning another big trip. “Travel is our passion,” Florence says, and when new adventures beckon, she knows whom she’ll be calling to make them happen.
Photos: Top two: Allie Almario Bottom: Mark Oshiro