Saturday, March 29, 2014

Power Out and Power Forward

The 27th of March. A Thursday. Armed Forces Day here in Burma. A national holiday and my first non-weekend day off from teaching. My plans for the day had been dictated by my plans for the evening. All of the teachers from my school (there are 10 of us) were going to get together at a local restaurant for some socializing followed by a 'flat crawl' (British English being the norm here, flat=apartment). The idea was that we would be wandering from one teacher's apartment to the next amongst the half dozen or so of us within walking distance from said restaurant. Given that my place was a mere 3 blocks from our starting point, I figured my home would be amongst those visited. Cleaning, beautifying and preparing my joint for its first social visitors was at the top of my things to do list.

Let me further preface this anecdote by explaining that I was mistaken in something I wrote recently here on my blog regarding my role as the building's water-tank keeper. My twice-daily duties of turning on and off the switch to the water pump leading down to the well is actually NOT for the tank for my whole building; the tank I was filling serves just my apartment.  

Seemed like it though; I don't use that much water, but the tank would always run dry if I didn't. Forgetting to turn the pump off after starting it was bad enough. The tank would overflow, spilling water onto people's windows and into the stairwell. Forgetting to start it in the first place leads to situations like I was facing yesterday morning. An hour or so after waking up, I did the thing in the bathroom that people normally do at that time of the morning, but when I pushed the flush lever, nothing happened. The tank was dry and I had no water. Not a problem, I thought. Just turn on the pump, the tank would fillv20 or so minutes and the toilet would become flushable.
Twenty minutes passed and I went back to my odoriferous offerings to the porcelain god and still nothing. Kitchen sink didn't work either and I had dishes to wash. Went downstairs, found the landlord and with a lot of gesturing, miming and saying “water no!” I got my point across. Half an hour after that, the landlord and the plumber show up at my door. Unfortunately, in the interim, another thing had happened: the power had gone out. I read about Yangon's notorious power outages, but this was my first time experiencing one at home (several of my classes had been interrupted by the lights going out, but those were minor inconveniences as the school has its own back up generator).

The plumber climbed up on the roof, looked into my tank and said “There's no water in here!” (I was able to translate the Burmese from the context). Again via gestures and such the landlord asked me if I'd turned on the pump. Of course I'd turned on the pump! Being the master of that switch has been part of my daily sacred duty for the two weeks I've been living here! Given that they really couldn't diagnose the issue when there was no power, the plumber went away and I was left in an increasingly hot and stinky apartment. It got to 100F yesterday, and despite my attempts at manually flushing the toilet by chucking water into it from my basin reservoir, I couldn't get all of the source of the smell to go away. People were coming over in a matter of hours and my place stunk. Shit. Literally. 

I swept up the powdered bird poop from the corners, made the place look the best I could, but without water, there wasn't much more I could do. I recorded my weekly ukulele song for the Seasons of the Ukulele contest, edited the vid and left my stifling abode for a local internet cafe where I'd hoped to upload my vid and chill in their aircon. 

The place was packed. National holiday, hottest day of the year so far, everyone and his brother were down at 'The Castle' internet shop playing games and Facebooking. Whereas normally this place gives me decent speeds to upload my vids, yesterday my standard resolution offering was giving me approximate upload times of 6 hours. Damn. Even after 'dumbing down' the resolution, it still said 2 and a half hours to upload. I couldn't just sit in the cafe all that time and I still had some prep to do for my pending visitors. Back through the market to home. 

The power was still out. Of course, no water. Headed out to the rendezvous having scrapped my plans for inviting people back to my place. I don't want my first impression to be that of a guy who lives in an apartment that smells of poo. 

I found out from the other teachers after relating this anecdote that it's only going to get worse in April. It's the hottest month of the year, meaning the most aircon being used. It's also the end of the dry season, and since much of Myanmar's power is hydroelectric, the low water levels in the river means less juice in the grid. Last year, one guy told me, the power went out pretty much every day in the month of April from the hours of noon to 3.

As for the night out with teachers itself, I'll just say this: an interesting group of characters, as you might expect given the sample group of English speakers who have chosen to teach in the wild backwardness of Yangon, Burma. 

Week 110, Seasons of the Ukulele

Saturday, 29 March 2014

What to do? Where to go? How much will it cost? How do I get there? I have to make a decision this weekend. What am I going to do in April? I've got one more week teaching, and then I'm off for a month. Paid vacation. Yes, that might sound a bit surprising given that I've only been teaching here for a month, but that's what I'm gonna get. Mid-April is Buddhist New Year (celebrated in just a few places like Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka), and our language school is closing down for a month.

I should leave the country on a 'visa run'. I don't have to, but I'm sort of expected to. One of the odd things about Myanmar labor laws for foreigners is that the maximum length for which you can get a work visa is 10 weeks. Every ten weeks, any foreign national living here has to leave the country, even just for a day, then come back for a new 10-week, $50 work visa. My company pays for 5 of these visa runs per year, i.e., reimbursing me for costs up to $280 per trip (more than enough for a flight to Bangkok and a couple nights hotel). By the end of this upcoming vacation, I'll have been here 9 weeks, so by the last week of April, first week of May, I need to be somewhere else.

But where? How much can I spend?

I don't want to spend too much. Tomorrow's payday, and I am so looking forward to getting my first paycheck. My start-up costs here have been tremendous, so much so that I had to put off a few purchases: desk chair and refrigerator, until I got paid. I don't want to spend the last week of April like I did this last week of March: counting my Kyats, getting small loans from friends, having to stay home to save money. I DO expect to save money here in Myanmar. That's one of the main reasons I came. I've never been good at saving money, so this will be a challenge, but I expect to bank at least 1/3rd of my income in savings.

I am having a great time here, but make no mistake, it's been a challenge. You only have to read my last couple of blogs to see that. Sometimes, as I lie in bed in the morning hearing the families of pigeons overhead, I can't help but wonder: 'What the heck am I doing here?'. I think we all question, at some level, sometimes very much repressed, our basic choices in life. When you're in as trying a place as this country, of course, I'd be lying to say that I don't sometimes wonder why I'm here. I did the same in Thailand. The same thing happened in Seattle, for that matter. Anyways, part of my answer to that question comes tomorrow when I collect my monthly salary of 1.5 million Kyats.

Tomorrow, I am a millionaire.

My dream vacation is this: Buy a motorcycle on the outskirts of Yangon, drive southeast out of town towards Dawei. Get a tent and sleep on the beach. Slowly make my way down the isthmus of Kra, making excursions out onto the undeveloped and pristine islands off the coast of Myeik. Make my way slowly to Kawthoung, the southernmost city in Myanmar, sell the motorcycle, cross over border into Ranong, Thailand. Jump on a boat and spend another few days out on idyllc Koh Phayam, back to Ranong and into a van to Bangkok. Spend a few days catching up with friends there, then back on a plane to Yangon.

Except for the buying and selling of a motorcycle part, I don't see why this wouldn't work. In fact, I've decided. Just by writing this blog, I've deduced a workable plan. This will cost a lot more than my allotted visa run, but it's doable. Might be a disaster. Might be the best time of my life. We will have to see. 

Here's a montage video of my first three weeks in Myanmar:


  1. The only way you will be able to save anything is to bank that 1/3 on the start of the month and not touch it unless you ar absolutuly starving or very very sick. I would think there is enough new things to see and experience right there without having to travel at this point. Take the required trip to the closest, least expensive place to satisfy the requirement. Noone is going to help you for very long if you have to borrow at the end of the month even if you pay them back. You have to take care of yourself.

  2. I keep telling myself that the pioneers lived with no water and no air conditioning and a lot of them survived. But I really admire your pioneer spirit. Sure hope your vacation works out - i sounds like a good time for you.


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