Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My 44th Birthday Speech

I turned 44 yesterday, which is today for most of you. It was a quite normal day at work, but my co-workers did insist that we all go out afterwards to celebrate. As gifts, I got a cake and a pack of smokes. Our venue was a rather unlikely place, which I talk about in the speech I was asked to give near the end of the evening. Fortunately, I was prepared...


“This is Burma,” wrote Rudyard Kipling some 80+ years ago, “It is quite unlike any other place you know.” (pause) I'm sure that, whereas there's a certain timelessness about this place, it's become unlike the place Kipling knew during his day. It even has a different name. The modern world is knocking on Myanmar's door, and she is opening the door a little at a time. Our very presence here is evidence of that.

I stand before you on my 44th birthday, here in an unlikely combination restaurant/car wash. Who would think to join these two kinds of establishments together? It is an unlikely place in more ways than one for me. If you had asked me on my 39th birthday where I'd be on my 44th, I certainly wouldn't have ever guessed Yangon, Myanmar. But like Myanmar, I've been through a lot of changes over these last five years. Mentally, emotionally, spiritually and geographically. Some of these changes were forced upon me due to unfortunate events; some are the results of choices I've made.

As we sit here in this suds-o-raunt, playing cards, I reflect on how much life itself is like this game of Apples to Apples. We're all dealt a hand, the content of which we have no control. As the game progresses, we discard parts of our hand and take on new cards. We decide the former. No matter what though, we play the hand we're dealt, and play it the best we can.

Unlike my 39th birthday, here on my 44th, I have a vague idea of where I want to be in five years. I started down the road to get there two years ago when I came to this part of the world. I may now be closer to the end of this game than it's beginning, and sometimes it concerns me that I seemingly at times still haven't figured out how to play all that well, but I'm happy where I am and like the cards in my hand. Thank you all for being here. 


(post note: okay, no one actually asked me to give a speech, but if they had, it would have been what I've written above.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Some of you might remember this blog here dated the 23rd of March where I asked my real estate agent to request of the landlords that they take care of a certain pigeon problem.  See, there was a whole flock of them roosting in the loft space separating my ceiling from the roof.  They have been bugging the heck out of me all this time with their cooing, comings and goings and noises that I'm guessing were pigeon sex.  Plus, they had chicks up there and their squawking was particularly annoying.

Today (after two months waiting), the problem has been taken care of. I hope. I can hear them now up on the corrugated metal roof, landing, shuffling about, trying to get in, but as of yet, I've heard none on the ceiling tiles. I looked out the back window and saw about half a dozen pigeons on the building across the way, looking consternated, eyeing the eaves of my building.

How could I tell the pigeons were consternated? Well, they just looked that way, okay?

I actually felt kind of sorry for them for a second. I've been the cause of a rock dove eviction. They're now homeless pigeons. They've lost their roost.

Ah, fuck 'em (pardon my French).

I don't know to what extent they cleaned up the damage, i.e., shit, that they've caused up there for who knows how long, but at least they're gone.  For now.

Remarkable creatures, pigeons AKA rock doves. Did you know their original habitat was just a small area on the Mediterranean coast of Spain?  They're a species that has thrived as modern human civilization has thrived.  I can't say this for sure, but I know they live in every major city in the USA.  I've seen them now both in Bangkok and Yangon, so I'd have to guess they're in every city in between, that being pretty much every other city in the world. 

They've also fixed the leak above my bed.  Again, we'll wait and see until the next really heavy rain.

The carpenter fixed the pigeon problem. They were still working on it when I arrived home from teaching today.  With him was a cleaning lady, who had already done wonders in sweeping, mopping and scrubbing my apartment to sparkling perfection.  She is apparently available for regular cleaning duties too.

I hired her.  Once a week, I now got a lady coming in who'll wash my dishes, sweep, mop, etc.  Might seem a bit luxurious for a bachelor living in an 800 sq foot apartment to need a cleaning lady, but my cost for her services?  $3/per week. My salary here would put me just a bit above the poverty line in the USA, but even then, $3 is $3. Well worth the peace of mind that having a spotlessly clean abode brings.

* * *

Got both a pic and video to share in the multimedia portion of tonight's blog.

I took this picture in my 'young teenagers' class (they're all actually like 11 or 12).  We were playing a game of 'categories' wherein it's important, if you want to win, to have a unique answer to each question than no one else has come up with, so copying, or letting someone copy off you, is a bad idea. Mind you, these kids copy off each other the time; it's sort of the Asian way.  Cooperation is an essential part of their culture (see here).

When a game is involved, different story.  They built little walls.

The theme for this week's Seasons of the Ukulele: Puppets and Parodies.  I borrowed the puppet, a traditional Burmese one, from a co-worker.  The parody is of Rhianna's mega-hit, Umbrella, and I talk about the onset of the monsoon.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Shwedagon Pagoda

Ah, yes, the rainy season is now here.  If you watched the clouds video in my previous blog, you got to see one of the spectacular and beautiful parts of this time of the year.  Although I can still look out the window and watch the lightning and hear the thunder, once it actually starts raining, it's not so fun being outside.

Yesterday, around dinner, as the monsoon rains drenched the city, I did actually go out walking in the rain.  It had let up a bit, and I was hungry.  I do have a few things I can cook at home, but all of those required me to boil water, and my one pot was being used to catch drops from my (I've discovered) very leaky roof.

It wasn't so bad getting to the restaurant.  In fact, a lot of the Burmese seemed to be having a very good time.  Although it has rained, they were showers or quickly passing storms.  This was the first time it had rained continuously for a few hours.  People were smiling; it's been a long, hot summer.

Me, I gotta deal with the landlord and get something done about these leaks.

The white noise you hear in the background is the rain hitting the corrugated metal roof over my head.

 * * *
The day before, another new teacher and I visited the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda located right in the heart of Yangon.  The story goes that there's been a shrine at it's location on the only hill for miles around going back to the days of the Buddha himself (600 BC). Somewhere deep in the pagoda are Buddha relics.  Eight strands of his hair were given to two Burmese merchants who met Gautama Buddha when he traveled the world after his enlightenment. 

It's the tallest Buddhist stupa in the world and it is surrounded by a substantial complex of temples, other pagodas and places to make offerings and perform rituals. It was said during the colonial period that there's more gold plating Shwedagon than there was in the Royal Bank of England.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Honest Taxi Driver and Clouds

My dialog with a Burmese taxi driver after work today:

Taxi Driver: Where you go?
Me:             Hledan Zie (the name of the market near my house)
TD:             Hledan Zie?
Me:             Hledan Zie.
TD:             Okay. Okay. 
There's a long pause. Neither one of us wants to be the first to name our price. See, as I think I've mentioned before, taxis are not metered here in Yangon and so any trip anywhere begins with this little dance we have of taxi driver and potential passenger. Saying how much you want first puts you in a worse place, negotiating wise. I got all day, and he's the one with his car running, blocking the taxi behind him as they queue up at the mall.

TD:       One thousand five hundred.
Me:       Oh, no, should be te'taun. (1000; I find I get better results if I show at least some knowledge of their numbers.)
TD:       No! No! (He then proceeds to mime zig zagging through heavy traffic. It was 4 o'clock, and traffic wasn't that bad yet, but fares do go up during rush hour)
Me:      Te'taun ni'-ya? (1200. At this offer, the driver just laughs. I should have known better. Taxi fares are always rounded to the nearest 500)

I said okay to his 1500, knowing it's always a bit more when your starting destination is a ritzy mall. At the end of the first street, my driver starts to turn the wrong way. I stop him and yell 'Be! Be!' (left!). His turn would have made sense if he were going to the far side of Hledan Zie, but I live on the near side, and I still don't know how to quite express that. Perfectly understandable misunderstanding.

City Espress, Hledan Lan” I offer up, naming a popular convenience store near where my road turns off. Near the end of the short trip, I again had to tell him when to turn.  

I'm not sure what it was that did it. Maybe it was him losing face a little in not knowing where to turn. Maybe he was impressed with my knowledge of the back streets. Maybe he just realized that yes, 1000 Kyats is the correct fare for a trip a bit over a mile. When I told him to stop, he said, “Okay, One thousand.”


Yes, one thousand, okay.”

I was flabbergasted. I've had taxi drivers try to increase a fare on me en route, but never had one reduced. I might have tipped him the extra 500 (it's only 52 cents) just for being honest, but tipping isn't part of the culture here, and I might have offended him.

This place never ceases to amaze me.

* * *
Can you see ominous face in the clouds?

The rainy season is starting. The monsoon is coming. In all my life, I've never seen clouds quite like what I saw tonight from my rooftop balcony. They were spectacular. A video can't do them justice, but I tried. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Particle Man

Due to bit of a spending spree today, it's a night of many firsts for me here in Myanmar. First time I've played my own 6-stringed bass ukulele (sometimes known as a guitar) as I just bought one this afternoon. Sounds beautiful, and not only is the guitar made in Myanmar, it's made right down the road in San Chuang township where many of my friends live. It's also my first time scanning and printing something from home, as I got a new peripheral for the 'puter. Lastly, it's my first time covering a TMBG tune. If you don't know what TMBG means, you wouldn't really care, and if you do know, I hope you're excited as I. Time to print out the lyrics and sing Particle Man.

Here's a pic of my new guitar. On the wall hangs the cheap gig bag I got with it. It's labeled ROCKWIND (whether that means air movement or cranking something, your guess is as good as mine) and that is a recent picture of the Rolling Stones on the bag. The Golden Years Rolling Stones. I think it's an appropriate gig bag for a guy approaching middle age.

The other somewhat major purchase I made today was a printer/scanner/copier. In my last uke video, my mom asked me how I learn all these new songs every week. Well, I don't really. I can't remember what I played I few weeks ago. Instead, I just look up the chords on the internet, have a cheat sheet, a cue card, there taped to the tripod as I play. I am getting tired of having to transcribe the chords and lyrics from my computer screen to paper, so I felt it was time to buy a printer.

Due to its multifunctionality, I used my new toy to scan some drawings I made too. Being a teacher of English, I put my own spin on what 'Particle Man' is all about.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Most Remarkable Weirdos

The most remarkable people come to teach in Myanmar. That's what I've decided. When thinking out this blog, I thought of titles like 'The Weirdest People...” or “The Strangest People...” because most of my co-workers could be appropriately described as weird or strange. I'm not making a negative comment on their character there as I myself am both weird and strange. Instead, 'remarkable' describes a person whose somewhat different than the norm without all those negative connotations.

Point being, 'normal' people stay home in their countries of birth. It's odd-balls like us that seek out new experiences in foreign lands. Most of us are a little fucked up, if not by character, then by what's happened to have been our lives' experiences. This makes for some interesting office dynamics, to say the least.

At this point, some of you might me asking, “OMG, why are you talking behind your co-workers' backs openly on your blog?”. Calling the office a bunch of weirdos isn't the best strategy for someone trying to fit into a new workplace. For my co-workers who will read this, well, they'd probably be the first to agree; we are a bunch of unique personalities.

Normal people don't just up and decide to go teach English at the ends of the Earth. Myanmar definitely qualifies as being an end of the Earth.

That said, I like my office. Even though there's a bit more politics, bad blood and animosity between its members than you'd find in a 'normal' office of 12 people, we share two things in common that bring us together that are very powerful. Firstly, we're foreigners in Burma. It's a daily challenge that only another of our ilk can understand. Second, we're all very remarkable, that nice, politically correct way of saying that we're a bunch of weirdos.

Wouldn't have it any other way.

Need proof I'm a weirdo? Watch the video I made tonight.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

One Night in Bangkok

I'm a traveler. I love getting out and going places far from home. Always been this way. That said, I'm not very good at it. Namely, to be a good traveler, you should plan things in advance. Consult resources about where you're going. Confirm plans, check reservations, that kind of thing. If you don't do that kind of stuff, things may not be as you expect when you arrive at your destination. I've never been very diligent about this preparation/confirmation kind of thing. Hopefully I'm not to the point of being a polyana, but I've always just sort of assumed that things will turn out for the best.  That's my mindset, and I'm happy with it.

That's fine if you drive a couple hours to a state park and find it closed. That's just a disappointment. It's another thing when you've got an immigration-mandated international flight out of a fairly quiet airport in a country whose national carriers are renowned for canceling flights at the last minute.

But that couldn't happen to me, right?

This last Friday, I show up at Yangon International Airport a good two hours before departure time (patting myself on the back for the time cushion), step up to the check in line (there was no line) for Golden Myanmar Airlines under a big LED sign that said BANKOK: 4:45 – CANCELED. You'll see it in the video at the end.

Canceled? WTF? I already paid for my hotel in Bangkok. I have to make this trip tonight to renew my immigration visa status. What's going on?

I give them my paperwork, and there is, at that point, an unspoken request/demand that I hoped was being understood. Get me on another flight. They find my name on a list of about 15 people and one of the attendants gets on the phone, reading my name to who knows who. Another says, “We are checking with other airlines, please have a seat over there.” pointing to an area where about half a dozen other somewhat disgruntled looking disappointed passengers sit.

Twenty minutes later, they call me over, bring me to the queue for Bangkok Airways (the carrier with the funkiest painted planes in all of Asia) flight 704, leaving mere 30 minutes after my original flight had been booked for and told me to have a nice day.

Whaddya know. Things turned out for the best. I even got a free meal. Golden Myanmar wasn't offering food service for the short 60-minute flight to Bangkok. It was a cheap ticket. $120 round trip. In fact, it was explained to me three times and my boarding pass had the words “NO MEAL” highlighted right on it, so I was anticipating not getting any wonderful airplane food. Who cares? It's a one hour flight. That detail got missed and I had a lovely dinner during my hour on board Bangkok Airlines. Same thing on the flight home.

Remembering the list on a clipboard I saw with my name along with a dozen or so others, I'm guessing the flight was canceled due to underbooking. It just doesn't make sense for an airline to fly 600 miles or so on a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 320 with only 20 people on board. There's probably some of agreement between the airlines to handle these kinds of situations.

While in Bangkok, I spent the evening hanging out with friends on Sukhumvit's infamous Soi 11, and spent the next day shopping. Should have made a list of the stuff I intended to buy in that world-city Bangkok that I can't find in Yangon, but I forgot. Instead, I banged my head against a wall I had before while living there: trying to find a pair of shoes in size 12E for less than $100. If my feet were but one size smaller, I could buy a decent pair of shoes in Bangkok for $10. I did, however buy a whole bunch of science fiction books at Bangkok's Dasa Bookstore for a pretty penny. Worth every Baht.

Enjoy the video.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

My Ein-Myaun Health

Hot. Hot, hot, hot. That's the news here from Myanmar. Not complaining, just reporting. We're talking 38C, 101F every single day. Oh, but it's a wet heat. Like a Houston heat. Air so thick, it's like you're swimming down the street when you're out for a walk. It is the height of the 'hot season' here in SE Asia. It's so hot, you don't really want to go out and do anything. A week with no blog. I haven't really had anything to blog about because I've been 'hibernating' in my AC'd apartment.

So let's catch up on some things about... well... it is my blog, so things about me.

If you've read this blog back from my days in Thailand, you'll remember I had some pretty significant issues with an inflamed disc in my back. Kept me bed ridden, and although it slowly got better, it regressed from time to time and there wasn't really any point in my last eight months in Bangkok that I was pain free.

Great news! I am now 100% pain free! The back has not bothered me at all. Ever since I came to Myanmar, I've had no issues with the bulging disc. Actually, I got better before leaving Thailand, a couple days after I sold my motorcycle. See, I'm pretty sure that was it. It was riding a motorcycle that kept aggravating my back. I sorta suspected that even while I was living with the pain, but I didn't really want to admit it to myself because that would imply I should stop riding a motorcycle! I loved the freedom and convenience having my own ride gave me. I loved the feel of riding the iron horse! I've had a motorcycle most of my life since I was 8 years old. If I could, I'd have one here in Yangon (motorcycles are banned within the city limits). One day, I'd planned on owning one again, but with this realization of how it causes me unending pain, maybe I should endeavor to buy a car.

On to a topic in other health news that I haven't talked about much on the blog, but my friends and family know about: my battle with psoriasis. For the last 18 years or so, I've had really bad plaque psoriasis. Big patches of white and red scaly skin covering most of my shins and much of my forearms. Elbows and knees totally covered. It itched. It caused me tremendous social anxiety. I'd tried everything to fix it, but nothing worked.

Just before I left Amerika, I'd gone to the doctor and he gave me a cocktail of topical steroids to use in combination. As I said, no single medicine I'd tried before had helped. Also just before I left, I visited the tanning salon two or three times a week. I had the time, and after five years in Seattle, I didn't want to arrive in the tropics pasty white. I was quite bronze when I came here a year ago. The UV radiation from the tanning booth also helped treat my psoriasis. With the medicine and the UV radiation, I was pretty much symptom free when I got here; I wasn't embarrassed to walk around in shorts.

Ultimately, the medicines I'd brought from America ran out, and I wasn't getting much sun on my legs, and although there are tons of businesses geared towards helping their customers appear more fair skinned, there are no tanning salons in Bangkok. The psoriasis came back. My regular doctor sent me to the Thailand Institute of Dermatology, the country's top skin clinic, where I underwent UV therapy.

Twice a week, I'd step into what amounted to a vertical tanning booth (medical strength) and in just a couple minutes, I got what amounted to a full day out in the sun.

It worked. They also gave me topical steroids, and after 4 months of this treatment, not a single symptom of psoriasis anywhere on my body for the first time in 18 years. Hallelujah!

I was worried about it when coming to Burma. I'm guessing there's not a single UV therapy machine in the entire country. I brought plenty of the topical stuff medicine with me from Thailand, but I knew that wasn't really what had alleviated my symptoms. I was worried the psoriasis would come back, as it always has before.

I've been here almost two months now. Haven't used any of the steroid cream on my problem areas at all (although the same stuff does do wonders for my jock itch). I'm still 100% symptom free. Hoooray!

One of the weird things about psoriasis, a condition whose cause isn't well understood nor is there any definitive 'cure', is that it is strongly influenced by psychological conditions. Another time in my past where my symptoms mostly went away is when I'd broken up with a girlfriend who'd been causing me a lot of stress. My symptoms were once again reduced by half when I divorced my ex-wife (same woman as the gf I'd broken up with years before that). See, stress exacerbates psoriasis. My skin, for these last however many years now, has been sort of a dermal indicator of my mental well being. When I don't feel like things are going right in my life, when I'm neurotic or unfulfilled, my skin tells me so by breaking it huge patches of auto-immune malfunction (psoriasis is an immune system hyperactivity; the skin is triggered into hyper-replacing itself when it doesn't need to).

If I'm psoriasis free, it means also that I'm stress free. Living here in Myanmar is tough, but it's an immediate, in your face kind of tough that I can handle. I had far more stress from the existential ennui of living in America surrounded by every creature comfort one could want, but still not feeling fulfilled. Here, my challenge is living. After that, everything's easy.

If my skin starts telling me I need to make a change, my brain will listen. 

For this week's video, we have me torturing an Ein-Myaun...



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 ...