Monday, March 31, 2014

A Tour of the Neighborhood

Ah, nothing better than a nice place to sit. Yesterday, I got the last two major components for the Yangon apartment: a fridge and a desk chair. Now, the fridge is just an ordinary mini-fridge, nothing special there.  The desk chair, on the other hand, is one of the best I've ever owned.  I'm usually not one to boast about material possessions; stuff is just stuff. This beauty here, however, was quite the find. Oh, that head-rest thingie up at the top snuggles the nape of my neck just so... 

In a previous video, you might have seen snippets of my new neighborhood as I sang about the women working there.
Today, you'll see some more as I trace the one mile or so walk from home to where I work, much to the bewilderment of my neighbors.  What is this crazy foreigner doing walking down the street talking to himself into a camera?  Note the confused looks on the guys sitting at the tea-house in the background.

Child labor is a big issue here.  I've noticed that at most of the small tea-houses that are seemingly on every corner of Yangon, most of the wait-staff are kids. Whether they're relatives of the adults running the place, I don't know, but most of the time when I sit down for a coffee and donut, it's someone who should be in school bringing to me. 

Speaking of schools, I saw something interesting spraypainted on the fence of a school just a couple blocks from my place. Graffiti. This picture says a lot. 

Actually, the graffiti on my little walk was remarkable in other ways too. I believe these other pieces might be the work of the same tagger. The message is very positive. 

I'm not sure what 'ERACISM' means, but in my head it evokes the phrase 'erase racism'. Very original use of a foreign language!

And for this last one, it's obviously political, but as to what it means, I have no idea.

Enjoy the video...

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:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Neighborhood Guitar-Playing with the RIff-Raff

A week ago, I was coming home from a late dinner to my fabulous penthouse apartment here in Hladen Market when I was greeted by a random guy on the street. We were about a block away from my home.

Hello!” he said.
Hello!” I said back.

That seemed to be about the extent of his English until we got to just in front of my building. There were a bunch of Burmese guys sitting in a rough circle on the then closed street vendor kiosks and on the pavement of the street itself. They were passing around a guitar and singing songs, a scene repeated hundreds of millions of times every night in every country on this Earth. No language needed; the common language is music.

Please, please!” my new friend remembered another word of English and gestured for me to join the group. Heck yeah! A bunch of guys sitting around playing guitar and singing? This was exactly the kind of connection I was looking for with my neighborhood. I sat down on the edge of the pavement and of course, the guitar was immediately passed to me, the foreigner. After a year in Thailand, I learned that there are a few standards I know by heart that Southeast Asians seem to love. I played Knocking on Heaven's Door, Let it Be and of course, Country Roads. They knew the words (or at least the sounds), sang along and we all connected, smiled and had a good old time. A water bottle with some unknown brownish liquid was being passed around and was offered to me. Refusing food or beverage in Asia is, as a friend once told me, like kicking Jesus in the nut sack, so of course, I had to accept. It was what I expected, some kind of whiskey and water.

Mind you, with Country Roads, when you get a bunch of guys singing it, particularly if some of them have had a few, the chorus is belted loudly. Very loudly. That's just how it is. the place, where I BeLOOOONNG!!!! WEST VIRGINIA!!...

I'm sure everyone in a two block radius heard us. I didn't think about it for a second. See, here in Myanmar, there is absolutely no sense of being too loud or noise pollution, particularly not at the relatively early hour of about 10:30 PM. People here are free to make as much noise as they can when and wherever they want. It's kinda hard to explain, and kind of annoying when it happens at 6 AM, except to say that I wasn't in the least bit worried about being too loud.

I kinda like that. All in all, I'm at heart a loud person, so I like the freedom to make my noise as I wish. No one complains or minds too much because they know that's how it is. When it comes to things like civil and political rights, the people in this country have less freedom than most of the rest world. When it comes to freedom in how you chose to live and act in your daily life, it's a free for all. Lotsa freedom, far more than even the USA.

There are, of course, exceptions. People still gossip, worry, complain about their neighbors and judge. Apparently, some of the guys in this song circle last week were amongst the riff-raff of the neighborhood. We broke up about 10:30 that night, and at 11 PM, I got this text from Nwe Zin, my real estate agent:

Oh come on. Now, I knew immediately that this concern was well intentioned. I do have a bit more than a modicum of street smarts, even in a foreign country like Myanmar, but my landlords don't know that. They want me to stay away from the riff-raff.  Ultimately, they should know, I'm one of the riff-raff myself.  The riff-raff are my people.

Today, the landlords agreed to hire people to come in and deal with pigeon situation above my head.

Again, this all with the best intentions in mind.

Toinght, a week later, once again it was getting late into the evening and I had forgotten to eat dinner. For the first time in a week (and I had been listening for it), I heard the neighborhood guys playing guitar and singing on the street in front of my building. I went and ate, this time with ukulele in tow. Came back to the spot where the guys were playing and singing, it was after 10 PM by that point, and the energy of the first night wasn't there. I followed along as best I could to the guitar they were playing, and when I played they were clueless as the chords on a uke are totally different than a guitar.

I don't care what my landlords say. I want to connect, safely and sanely with the guys in my neighborhood. Music is one way to do that. We don't speak each others' language even musically when I call out chords like “G”... “C”... “D'... They know the chords, but don't know the letters.

First paycheck, I'm buying a guitar.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Get Rid of the Pigeons

A letter to my real estate agent. I can live with bees. I can kill and control the cockroaches.  The lizards everywhere are kinda cute, but they do shit all over the place.  The biggest issue in regards to the animal life in or above my apartment is the pigeons. They have to go.  I paid a lot of money up front for this place when I moved in, so they have the resources to deal with it...  I don't have the slightest clue how to ask in their language for this, so I wrote a letter to my rental agent. Note the simplified syntax and vocabulary; this is how I write to non-native-English-speakers.


Dear Nwe Zin,

Most things are very good here at the apartment you helped me find. I am thankful to you for finding this place for me. I like it very much.

There were a couple things that they asked me after I moved in that were a surprise. The control for the water tank for the whole building is in my apartment. Every morning, I have to remember to turn on the switch, let it go until it begins to overflow on my balcony, and then remember to switch it off. Sometimes, I won't remember to switch it off, and will go out with the water pump still on, making a small flood in the building. Before I moved in, I didn't expect to have to be the master of the water supply. It isn't a lot of work, but it is still work. They are making me do something to keep the building going. Tonight, I gave a key to Ton Ton so he can get into my place in case I forget to turn on or off the water. I have given up the complete privacy of my apartment. That is asking something of me to give up my key like that.

So, they are asking me to do things. I can do them, but I need them to do something for me in return.

There is something important I want you to ask Pyew pyew and Ton Ton on my behalf that needs to be fixed here. The pigeons. The pigeons need to go. I think pigeons are nice birds. They're beautiful animals. I will feed then when I can. That said, there are what sounds like 30 or 40 of them living in the space between my ceiling and the building's roof.

They're noisy. That's okay, I can handle the noise. It's kind of annoying, but I can live with it. The problem is that they go poop. They shit. I can see it everyday in this fine, gray dust that settles on my floor in certain places which has fallen from the ceiling up above. I know what it is, and I can't live with it. It is pigeon shit powder, and it will likely only get worse once the rainy season starts.

Thing is, Pigeon shit is very unhealthy for people. Even if you sweep it up, you breath it into your lungs every day and it's very bad. Over time, it can kill a person. Bird poo, when it dries and gets into the air can cause many different diseases.  I need you to stress this with Pyew Pyew.  That is what is important.  The bird poo is a health issue!  I'm sure she doesn't want for me to get sick because I live in her building. I already have a chronic bronchitis condition; my lungs are not that healthy to start with. I can't go a year with 40 pigeons shitting over my head and having that poison slowly get into my apartment.

I need you to tell Pyew Pyew to hire someone to get rid of the pigeons. Not kill them, just make them go away, and then put screens up so that they can't come back. If they build a little separate pigeon house for them on the roof for them to live in that isn't inside the building, that would be wonderful. Again, please tell them I don't want the pigeons killed. They just can't be living and pooping over my head.

Thank you very much and let me know how it goes.



So, we will see what comes of my pigeon removal request.  I am serious about it though.  I don't want flying rats shitting over my head, separated by the filmiest of screens for the next year.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

She Works Hard for the Money at the Market

Had fun yesterday and learned a little Burmese language while I was at it.  Memorized the words for 'may I take your picture?' and then wandered around just half a block of the Hladen Market I'd written about earlier.  I was looking for footage of women working as this week's Seasons of the Ukulele contest is about women songwriters and I had chosen Donna Summer's song named in the title above.  

Here are some framegrabs for the video challenged:

I think she's selling green peppercorns... In traditional Bamar (the actual ethnicity of most of the people in this part of Myanmar and where the name Burma comes from) make up:

Yes, we have some bananas.

I swear this woman said yes when I asked if I could take her picture, but then changed her mind. 

There's plenty more photos at my Photobucket page.   
And here's the video...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shamrock the Boat - A Yangon River Cruise

I'll admit, sort of an odd way to spend my first weekend in Burma, but as I was invited, I thought it might a good way to network. Lots of beautiful sites and interesting expats.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Tour of My New Apartment

Okay, the place is together enough that I can have visitors now.  Would you care to come in?  Please remove your shoes on the way in...

Come Together Cockroaches, Curtains and Furniture!

It's the weekend, and I've been grateful for the chance to relax and catch my breath. I've been riding non-stop whirlwind of stuff to do, places to see and adjustments to make since I boarded that flight out of Bangkok ten days ago today. With my first couple days of 'me-time' in a while, but also with a home that still needs a lot of work, I took my time yesterday with just one task in mind: get curtains
May seem like a simple enough task, right? Just pop down to the nearest department store and buy some window treatments and hardware. Not so much here in Yangon. Although there are a few department stores, they don't sell curtains. Neither do any of the local small shops, and as I mentioned previously, I am living in the heart of one of the market districts. My real estate agent told me that I would have to design them and have them custom made. Oh. Interesting. Sounded like fun too.

So, I sat down with pen and paper after visually estimating the sizes of my windows, drew some rectangles with an inset blow up of a channel at the top for the curtain rod and designed my curtains. Not being in the States, of course I wrote out my desired dimensions in centimeters. Out in the market, I had seen several fabric stores, so off I went. I had to visit three of four places before I found what I was looking for. See, the fabric stores only carried very fine textiles intended for use in making dresses and the like. Expensive stuff. Finally, I found a shop, err, well, it was a lean-to with a corrugated tin roof so low I couldn't stand up in it, jammed full of more everyday fabrics along an alleyway in Hladen market. 

My diagrams needed work. Despite using metric measurements for distances, volumes and weights, cloth it seems is still sold by the yard and fractions thereof. My 100cm long curtains were now 1 1/4th yards. It took a lot of scribbling and math in my head, but I finally walked out with 5 square yards of modest fabric for making my curtains. At 7500 Kyats ($8), I'm sure I was overcharged, but after looking around all morning, I was in no mood to haggle. 

Next step: the tailor.
There's a tailor on the ground floor of my apartment building, so naturally, that was my first choice. She spoke no English, but her teenage daughter spoke enough that I was able to explain my now much-revised diagrams. Still, they puzzled over them, not sure that I had actually bought enough cloth to make what I wanted. In the end, both the seamstress and daughter shook their heads over this foreign man's crude drawings and asked me where I lived. They ended up coming up to my room to measure for themselves the windows I wanted covered. Measure twice, cut once, as they say.
My window coverings should be done by now, waiting for me here on this Sunday morning. I know I got overcharged for this work. I'll wait until I see the final product, but a couple of cuts and a little bit of work on the sewing machine shouldn't cost 4500 Kyat ($4.75, a bit more than what an average person makes a day in Myanmar). Anyways, it's no big deal. Yes, my relocation costs ended up being more than anticipated, and I think I'm going to have to put off buying my last two significant items (a fridge and a desk chair) until my first paycheck, but less than $13 for 3 sets of curtains? Duck feed.
As for the mounting hardware, I'm recycling a bit of a disaster. I wanted to buy a simple cloth or plastic wardrobe to hang my shirts and stuff in. Not only did I buy the wrong thing, it was absolutely impossible to assemble, and since returning stuff to a store is unheard of here, I thought it was $25 wasted. You'll see my ill-fated attempts at putting it together in the video below. Now, at least, I have dozens of useless metal rods I can use for curtains!
I really like my new place. It suits me fine. One thing that was a challenge initially was the cockroaches. Big suckers. I'd step into the kitchen, and 2 or 3 would go scurrying away. I haven't lived in a place with a roach problem ever in my adult life. Fortunately, now, I'm finding dead cockroaches instead of chasing down live ones. The little bait traps work very well.
I've got animals all around me. Little bug-eating geckos live everywhere here. There's a rather large roost of pigeons living in the space between my kitchen ceiling and the roof. My landlords, who live on the first floor, love animals and there are always four or five well-fed street dogs lounging around the entrance to my building. I don't think anyone noticed in my last video, but I showed briefly the large hive of bees that were living just outside the door before I moved in. I screenshot an image.
I was told by the landlords that if I didn't bother the bees, they wouldn't bother me. Fair enough. Cockroaches give me the heebeejeebies, but bees? I can live with them. When they asked if I minded them being there, I still said I would rather they weren't there. I may have future guests who are allergic to them or something. The landlords said they would try to get rid of them in the Buddhist way, i.e., non-violently, through prayer and asking the bees to please go live somewhere else.
I guess the carpenter they had fixing the place up just before I moved in didn't get the memo. He poisoned them.
I have dozens of other anecdotes and insights to share, but I've reached the end of my page and besides, I got curtains I gotta go pick up! I can't finish my next video without getting the place together enough that I can take you on a tour!...

*** Update ***

The curtains weren't ready. They must be doing something special with them if they're taking this long. The video tour of the finished flat will have to wait, but I can show you stuff coming together.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From the Rooftop in Burma

Starting to settle in. My new apartment is half-furnished. The laptop is on a desk. I make my own coffee in the morning. I'm sitting on what will eventually be patio furniture, as I've yet to find a desk chair that fits my needs, but my new abode is definitely shaping up. Today is better than yesterday (my first night here), as the landlords have completed repairs they promised when I leased the place. All the light fixtures and electrical outlets now work. There is no longer a major leak over the threshold to the stairs. All the damaged ceiling panels that had been rotted away by previous roof leaks are now replaced. I guess 2.4 million Kyat goes a long way towards renovations.

It is kind of a surreal feeling plunking down 2.4 million of any currency. It was all in 1000 Kyat notes and was about the same volume as one of those big Oxford English Dictionaries you find in the library. The money for this place, one year's rent in advance, wasn't in an envelope or in my wallet. I needed a large plastic bag to bring it here. Money bound up in slabs like we're part of a big drug deal.  

As I've written previously, I wanted a more genuine 'Third World' experience than what I was living in Bangkok. Man, have I ever gotten that.

Just got interrupted in my writing by one of my new neighbors who shined a flashlight in my window. She reminded me: “Water! Water!”. See, as the penthouse dweller, the switch for the pump which leads from the building's well to it's rooftop water tank is within my apartment. In the morning, I need to turn it on for a while to fill the tank, and do the same again in the evening. Unfortunately, it has no auto-shutoff, and so if I leave it on too long, as I did just now, the tank overflows causing a cascade of water to shower down within the stairwells and outside people's windows. I am the pump keeper. It's a big responsibility!

What happens when I go away for a few days, I'm not sure.

I may be in the largest city in a country of 65 million people, but at least in my part of town, there is no municipal water.

Woke up this morning to a toilet that wouldn't flush (more than once), a butt sprayer that wouldn't spray and a kitchen sink without water. I didn't know to fill the tank last night. From what I understand, the whole building was in the same circumstance. No one came knocking on my door, because unlike water raining down the stairwell, it was a minor inconvenience. Burmese don't need running water. We all have a big basin in the bathroom that's kept full. We use it to 'shower' (by scooping out and dumping on ourselves), flush the toilet and do whatever else you need!

I still used bottled water to make my coffee this morning even though my new electric kettle would boil the reserve water no problem.

Where was I before this tangent about the water? Ah, yes, the genuine Third World experience. I live on the outskirts of Hladen (pronounced LAY-den) Market, a true Asian outdoor market covering an area of about 3 blocks by 6 blocks. If you've not experienced an Asian street market, I hope to bring you that soon in video, but in a word, it's overwhelming. As you walk through Hladen, the smells range between appetizing grilled or fried food delights to nauseating sewage pits. The sight of beautifully exotic fruits and vegetables, handicrafts and textiles contrast roads and pathways in total disrepair, mold stained walls of delapidated tenaments and the occasional disturbing reminder of abject poverty. The sounds are incessant: rickshaw bells ringing constantly pleading for people to get out of the way (there are few to any cars in the crowded alleyways of Hladen), hawkers shouting out what they're selling and for how much, thousands of crows make their monkey-like caws overhead occasionally broken in their avian orchestra by the rooster crow, the pigeon coo or the swallow's song. Dogs are everywhere, but they do not bark nor threaten. The dogs that tended to do that were long ago unnaturally selected out of the canine gene pool here. There are a couple dozen nice (by western standards, opulent by Burmese) restaurants in Hladen where the drinks are ice cold, the ambiance is relaxing and friendly and the food is cheap and delicious. There are also meager vendors offering one kind of food, and not much of it, on banana leaf or rattan.

And I sit in a rooftop apartment looking out on it all. It's like something out of a dream.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

This is Burma: Episode One

This is Burma. It is quite unlike anyplace you know.
- Rudyard Kipling

Well, my friendly blog friends, I'm here in the hotel's rooftop dining room, enjoying a respite in a western breakfast at the beginning of my 4th full day in the country of Myanmar (Burma). In a bit, I'm off to catch a taxi to work for my first real day teaching. It's been rough. I was expecting nothing less. Anytime I'm outside the confines of the hotel or work, I am bombarded by thousands of new sights, smells and sounds, most which I cannot yet comprehend. Okay, that person is a roadside food vendor. That much I get. But what are they selling? Sure, it's been a challenge, but I am loving it. You're only new someplace once.

Things have been made easier in that I've decided upon a place to live. My first full day was spent criss-crossing the areas of Yangon nearest the school looking at one disappointing vacant apartment after another. Fortunately, I had an agent who was very nice and spoke English well. She asked me what I wanted in an apartment. I wanted someplace furnished (with at least a desk, wardrobe and fridge), hot & cold running water, A/C, clean, western style toilet (as opposed to the squat-over-the-hole, non-flushing common in developing Asia). If it had wifi, a nice balcony view and other amenities, so much the better. Oh, and under $300 US/mo. (I was paying half that in Bangkok, but Yangon rental prices I knew were relatively high for the Third World).

As we proceeded, I was wondering why she wasn't showing me places like that. Some had some of the requirements, but none had all. Some were so dirty that I wanted to vomit when I opened the bathroom door. Some had no windows. Some were on the 7th floor of a building with no elevator. Several were painted pink. Some were really nice, but twice my budget. I came to realize at the end of my first day looking that what I wanted didn't exist here in Yangon. My agent explained to me that since the country only opened to foreigners a couple years ago, the local landlords just haven't had time to learn what westerners want in a dwelling. 

And why should they? It's their country. It's not they who need to adjust to us. I need to adjust to the reality here in Burma. 

I thought back the house I rented when I lived in Indonesia in 1991. It was big, but it was all poured concrete with no carpets, paint or wallpaper. There was no running water, much less hot water. To make the spigot work to fill the basin in the bathroom, you had to go outside and turn on the well pump for a few minutes. There was no shower. You scooped water from the basis with a big ladle and dumped it on yourself to bathe. The toilet was 'squat style'. I had no TV, and of course, no internet in those days. The place was more spartan than anything I was looking at here in Yangon, and I survived that year. In fact, I can't remember any of those things really inconveniencing me (of course, I also employed two servant girls who made things easier). I was happy there.

Sure, I'm not the same young man I was in 1991, but I can adapt again.

At the onset of the second day, I found my new place. You'll see it at the end of This is Burma: Episode One.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

16 Things I Learned About Myanmar on my First Day Here

The plane crossed the Thai-Myanmar border somewhere north of the Isthmus of Kra. Looking out my window seat from 6000 meters, I saw a brown, dry, parched land. Riverbeds were dry. Acre upon acre of what looked like rice paddy lay fallow and dead. These were my first impressions of Myanmar.

As we approached Yangon, river deltas appeared, and the brown of the slow moving waters replaced the browns of dormant agriculture. Bits of green began popping up here and there. Irrigation was working. See, it is the height of the dry season here in this part of Southeast Asia. It hasn't rained in Bangkok in months and I'm sure the same conditions apply here... but it was so visible from up above.

Yangon Airport itself was surrounded by green, and not much else. I had just flown out from Suvarnabumi International, Bangkok's glittering brand new airport and as fine, big and modern as any airport I've been in in my life. Yangon Airport was a single terminal. There were four other planes on the tarmac when mine landed. In America, it was the kind of airport you might see servicing a small city of 200,000 or so. A Reno. A Sioux Falls. A Lexington. Yangon has somewhere between 2 and 3 million people (no one is quite sure as there hasn't been a census here in 31 years).

Mind you, I'm not complaining about this dinkiness. I found it quaint.

What did I know about Burma? Myanmar? Not much. In my adult lifetime, the country has been closed, known for its dictatorship. It's been a 'rogue state', doing things their way and not giving a hoot about the rest of the international community. I was thinking my attempt to get a visa on arrival might end up like something out of the movie 'Argo'.

Far from it. I breezed through immigration and customs. There were no lines. I was one of the last from my flight to pass through the check points, and the ladies sitting at their stations (there were plenty) were already beginning to sit idly or gossip with the lady at the next check point. It might be a while before the next international flight arrives.

My first real sensory experience of Myanmar was the odor, the smell, the fragrance. Even domestically, one thing you'll notice coming out the sterilized environment of an airplane into a new place is a difference in the air. Myanmar smells Indian. I've never been to India, but I know that fragrance from Indian restaurants. I've also had many encounters with Indian people who themselves exude this particular scent. It is by no means an unpleasant scent. It doesn't stink. It is very distinctive, however, and here, it is everywhere. It's like a mix or turmeric, curry and patchoulli, but like none of them individually. In any case, I'm sure I'll simply get used to it after a while and stop even noticing it. I took a shower just now at the end of my first day. Smelling my pits, yup, I'm already starting to smell that way too.

Now this blog is at risk of becoming far too rambling if I explore each of my observations in detail. Time for bullet points.

Things I learned on my first day in Myanmar:

  • The world's tiniest chairs are the standard seating for street food vendors here.
  • It is true: there are no motorcycles on the road in Yangon (inconceivable for a Southeast Asian city).
  • People drive on the right side of the road, but 80% of the vehicles have the steering wheel on the right side.
  • Power outtages phase no one. I was in a supermarket with another foreign teacher today when the power went out in the store. It was the middle of the day, so there was still plenty of ambient light to see by, but my companion didn't even look up from the shelves. No one in the store even seemed to notice that the power went out (it came back on in about 20 seconds).
  • Myanmar does not use coins and stores just round up or down. It's all paper money here. The smallest denomination is the 50 Kyat bill, about six cents. At said supermarket, I bought a Sprite marked on the shelf at 380 Kyat. I gave her a 500 Kyat bill and got 100 change. Thank you very much. What the?
  • Later, at that same supermarket, I bought something that was 870 Kyat, gave her a 1000, and got 150 back. I guess it all balances out.
  • You have to haggle with the taxi drivers here. There are no metered taxis.
  • Had two meals today. One was Indian street food (very greasy and delicious), and the other was at restaurant where the menu had no pictures and was all in Burmese. The head waiter spoke very good English, and he suggested fried chicken with vegetables. It was 100% Chinese-style stir-fried chicken with vegetables. I'm sure the Burmese have their own cuisine, but they also happen to border three countries (Thailand being the third) with some of the best food in the world.
  • Homosexual sex is a crime and punishable by up to ten years in prison (not something I learned about first hand, but read in the English daily newspaper here).
  • They like to spit. There are signs in the hallways of my school that say “No Spitting”. At the restaurant, I noticed that underneath each table were small bins with plastic liners. Spittoons.
  • Teaching adults who are paying to be there is easier than teaching school children (I observed a class today).
  • Burmese are far more outgoing and direct than their Thai neighbors. Ten people asked me where I was from today. Twice while driving about with a taxi driver who was a little lost, he pulled over and yelled at a random passer-by “HEY YOU! WHERE'S THIS PLACE?!”, whereas in Thailand, it would be “Good day to you...(wai)... Would you mind, if you're not too busy, please help me find this place if you know where it is?”
  • The women here are gorgeous.
  • It's 11:34 PM as I sit here and type this, but to my body, it feels like it is 12:04. Burma is half an hour behind the Thai/Jakarta time zone. Like I said, they do things their way here, and they're one of a handful of countries who have eschewed the international norm of sharing the same minute readings on their clocks. Myanmar is +9.5 hrs GMT. 
     *  In the cab on the way from the airport, I asked the Burmese lady from the school who was greeting me to please tell me some cultural stuff... Stuff I need to know as a foreigner here.  She stressed the importance of patience.  Things don't work the same way here as they do in the rest of the world, and if you let the frustration that might result from the bubble up in the form of being visually bothered by it, you'll create even more problems (my words, not hers).

    * This blog was originally going to be called '15 Things..', but I found out as I tried to connect to Blogger and copy and paste it from Word, the internet here is indeed akin to dial up speeds from 20 years ago in the USA.  I'm back to 2800 baud.  Patience.  Patience. 


And on that note about time, I will call it a night. Tomorrow, it's time to get up early and start my apartment hunt.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Departure Time

So, this is it. The morning of my departure from Thailand. The bags are 98% packed. I can't think of anything I've forgotten to do, and I'm enjoying my last cup of coffee here in my apartment, preparing myself for another epic journey.  

I contrast this journey to my last one, when I came here from America.  Similarly, I had no idea what to expect nor how well I was going to adapt.  This morning, as I took a luke-warm shower and made my morning coffee in the microwave, I was thinking, "Will there be hot water in Yangon?"  I suppose I'll likely be making morning coffee in a kettle, if at all, as I don't expect a microwave.  Silly little creature comforts like these.  Trivial, really, but that's what I'm thinking about. None of those kinds of thoughts crept in when I left America.  

Anyways, I shouldn't dally. My flight leaves at noon, and being my mother's son (whose notoriously early to everything), I was thinking I should be there at 8 AM... but that's far too early.  9 AM is still early enough. There will be immigration stuff to complete at the airport, with both the Thai and Burmese authorities (you have to show the necessary paperwork allowing you in the country before you're even allowed ON a flight to Myanmar). 

My thanks to you all who've followed this blog as I've written about my experiences over the last ten months.  The journey continues...


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...