Tuesday, October 28, 2014


I don't usually post my ukulele videos here on this blog.  This one, though, is a little different and I thought it was worthy of sharing.

The challenge this week at Seasons of the Ukulele was Neil Young. I picked one of his songs from the early 90's, and then headed Downtown with my cameraman with a scavenger hunt mentality, looking in Yangon for the items mentioned in the lyrics.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hlagaw: An 'Oasis' North of Yangon

I use the word 'Oasis' in quotes as that was how is was described in the first online description I found of this place north of Yangon that I'll be talking about tonight.  It's a national park; the only one, I think, in the Yangon Region.  I noticed it months ago while looking at maps of this place I now live.  It was a big splotch of green, just as large as the city itself, and only 25 miles north of town.

I'd been pining to go there; maybe as a day trip, maybe overnight.  There weren't that many reviews of it online, but I'd pictured it in my head as a rustic place.  I expected maybe a ranger station or two.  Some hiking trails. Maybe a general store. When we had a long weekend earlier this month, Anthony and I headed up there by train and by motorcycle taxi to see what we could see.

What we saw was mini amusement park/zoo.  Mickey, Minnie and Donald were running around like it was Disneyland. I dunno if the Disney Corp is aware of this much less getting any royalties. I suspect not, as the USA still maintains economic sanctions against the nation of Myanmar and its quasi-military government.

Makes sense.  You're going to sanction us?  Well, we'll disregard your trademark laws!

In any case, the main camp of Hlagaw is like a mini-zoo.  There was a bird museum with lots of taxidermy, some pens with monkey and live birds, and most hilariously, the Malayan Sun Bears.  I brought along some stale shortbread crackers that I knew I'd be allowed to feed the animals with, and well, the bears had fun with them.

The video is in two parts.  In this second part, I used a lot of 'accidental' footage.  This was stuff that I recorded while I thought my camera was off, but was actually still rolling.  The point with the middle third of the vid is the audio.  I loved how everyone yelled out HI! after I responded 'hi!' to a bus full of local tourists after one of them had called out hi to me. You can also hear Anthony saying "This is terrible, Joko," after our tourist bus had abandoned us.

I'm definitely going back to Hlagaw.  I saw lots of cabins along the lake you'll see in the video.  he definitely offer accommodations up there.  Next time, it'll be a group of us teachers spending night out there at the national park.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Winding the Sumatran Adventure

It's taken me a while to share the last bit of the adventure, which ended up lasting a day longer than planned.

Post script to the mistake my travel agent made: When I got back to Yangon, I stopped in at the agency that's next door to my school because I needed a copy of my invoice and also to have a short chat with the manager, not angrily, but just to be helpful, help them improve their procedures so that the problem I had doesn't reoccur.  It should be an SOP to enter the client's e-mail address for the contact information with the airline.  My agent had entered her own.

Consequently, when I got to the airport on that last day,I had no idea my flight had been cancelled.

The smiling agent gave me a copy of my invoice, and then I asked if I could briefly speak to the manager.  Her face went pale and her smiled turned into a look of terror.  Oh no! The foreigner client wants to complain.

"Ummm..." she hesitated, "The manager is in a meeting."  Although that's an old excuse, I did actually see an older guy in a nice suit duck into a meeting room along the periphery of the large, open office space. 

"See," I told her, "there was a problem with my return flight."

"Yes, I know. It was cancelled."  Okay, so she read her e-mail.

"Well, how was I supposed to know?" I replied, and her head dropped in absolute remorse and shame.

"Sir, we tried looking for your e-mail, but could not find! I am sooo sorry!" She looked like she was about to cry. She was truly mortified. We talked a bit more, and she agreed that from then on, she would always ask the client for an e-mail address for contact info.  This should have just been common sense, but since this agency happens to be Myanmar's largest online travel booking provider, they don't do a lot of walk in business.

When I did arrive back in Yangon a day late, I looked into my wallet and found something rather unusual....

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sumatran Problems

In this video, the Sumatran adventure at the end of September makes a dramatic and painful shift.  I admit to making some mistakes, namely, going trekking through a mountainous jungle five days after minor back surgery was not a good idea.


Monday, October 6, 2014

On the Road to Lake Toba

I'm not an expert, per se, but after making over 1000 of them for YouTube, I think I know a little about what makes a compelling short video and what doesn't.  For example, when traveling by car or bus, it's easy to think that the scenery you shoot out the window will later make for interesting footage. That is rarely the case. The 'driving video' that won't bore your viewer to tears is one of the hardest home productions to pull off.

Tricks to make such a video more interesting include increasing the speed, using slow motion, picture-in-picture and as always, great music in the background.  It was an eight hour journey from Bukit Lawang to Lake Toba, and I reached deep into my bag of tricks to make it worth watching...  Enjoy.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Meeting Orangutans

In this blog, I continue the tale of my week off in Indonesia.

One of the best parts about playing the ukulele is that you can take one pretty much anywhere. Compact, lightweight, these stringed delights are wonderful companions for the road.  I brought my tenor uke with me on my trip, and I was little concerned that how I was carrying it, looping a strap of my backpack around the handle of my uke case, might be considered breaking the carry-on luggage restrictions of AirAsia.

God bless AirAsia.  This trip was my first time using the airlines, but I've heard and read about them since getting here.  They really have ridiculously low rates.  My roundtrip airfare from Yangon to Medan which included a transfer in Malaysia was only $200 - that's $50 a leg! No meals, no beverages, no check-in bags came with any AirAsia flight, and I was concerned though that cheap fares equated to harsher enforcement of the baggage rules. Fortunately, that didn't happen, and I cruised through my voyage with ukulele dangling behind me with no issues.

The choice to bring it paid off on my second night. I was at the Junia Hotel in
Bukit Lawang.  The place was nice, snuggled up along the edges of the jungle on the far, less developed bank of the river.  The staff had seen me carrying my uke and had asked about it. During the slow afternoon, I'd heard one of the waiters struggle to play and sing a song I knew quite well, 'Knocking on Heaven's Door'.  I busted out the uke and gave him a few pointers on the tune and taught him another easy one based on the same few chords.  That waiter turned out to be named Apri, and he was my guide for the jungle trek you'll see in the video.

Later, after dinner, the staff at the hotel encouraged me to bring the uke down to the riverside, where a circle of guys playing guitar was growing. Actually, it was just one guitar and a drum, but that was enough.  Unfortunately, I didn't bring the camera, so there's no video of it, but for the next two hours or so, I just hung out with the guys, playing music, singing songs. The primary guitar player was amazing, and he had no problem improvising solo's and accompanying bits to the ten or so songs I can play on the uke by memory.  When he played, I just listened or snag quiet harmony bits as best I could.  That jam session is my second-favorite memory of the whole trip.

The best moment of the whole trip happened the next morning when I tromped off with Apri (it was great having my own private guide, for whose services I didn't need to pay anything more than someone who'd signed up for a group with half a dozen other tourists) up into the mountainous jungle in search of wild
orangutan.  Mind you, he'd told me half a dozen times that there were no guarantees we'd see any of those majestic orange apes. They're wild, and although not afraid of humans, they range over a wide area of the jungle. Apri was diligent in pointing out all the other interesting aspects of the jungle including: remnants of wild rubber cultivation; gigantic insects; signs of wild boar and fleeting views of another monkey who lives there who has to have the coolest hairstyle in the primate world, Thomas' Monkey.

After about 90 minutes of strenuous up-and-down hiking, we came around a corner and there they were.  A momma orangutan and her baby, hanging onto a vine, an arm's reach off the trail at eye level.  WOW! I mean, if I was going to see any, I thought they'd be up in the canopy where I'd have to strain my neck looking up high to get a glimpse.  I certainly wasn't expecting to see this pair maybe 10 feet from where I stood.

On the way back down, I asked if we could an easier route as my back was beginning to bother me a bit. It was a longer, but much more level trip down through an adjacent rubber plantation.  We stepped at the hut of a worker there to borrow a knife to cut our pineapple.

 So very peaceful there, a feeling I tried to capture with the understated music accompanying the video. Definitely an amazing hike.  Enjoy the video...

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Back to Work in the Sunshine

There's something kinda depressing about waking up on the first morning back from a long, satisfying vacation. You should be happy and content with a whole portfolio of new and wonderful memories, but at the same time, there's an underlying realization that you're never further away from your next vacation than you are at the end of your last one. That's how I felt when opening my eyes today, awoken by the melodic chant of the Buddhist monastery next door. It took me some time and a cup of coffee to shake off the funk. For a long time, I've understood something about life that was first expressed by the Buddha some 2600 years ago: suffering is inherent in life, but it is desire that's at the root of that suffering. It's not the not having that brings us down, it's the wanting.

I was able to throw off these post-holiday blues, and now I'm actually a bit excited to get back to teaching....

****30 some hours later****

I'm writing today from the office, waiting for my Myanmar language class to begin. I've taught a few classes now over the last couple days, and I'm feeling a lot more comfortable. Just this morning, I did something I've rarely done before: I tried to observe myself doing something (teaching) while I was doing it, taking a little bit of my consciousness and separating it from the activity underway and putting in the observer role. I liked what I saw. I was doing a good job; being engaging, comprehensible and interesting. It kinda speaks to how comfortable and natural I've become in my role in my new career. Consequently, I feel a lot better about my job today as compared to yesterday where I had absolutely no enthusiasm for coming into work.

Do what you do and do it well. If you do it well, you'll like it more.

So, back to the story of the vacation. Video Two shares more of my first day in Medan and then begins the journey to Bukit Lawang, a village at the base of the hills (Bukit Lawang literally means 'gateway to the hills') from which I would be venturing out in search of orangutans. Couple of bad things happened along the way. First, I got ripped off by a tout for the cost of the ticket up there. I was trying to be thrifty, so I took a city bus out to the bus station on the outskirts of town. Just before the station, a guy jumped on, asked me where I was going, and then got off at the station with me because he just so happened to be the agent for the bus company that went there. How convenient. I knew he was quoting me a price that was well padded to include his commission. Well, I was kinda stuck there, and I tried shaking the tout off by rushing the bus driver when he arrived and asking the fare. He wouldn't answer and just looked to the tout, who wanted $15. I managed to talk him down to $12... The actual fare should have been about $6. Not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but given than not only do I speak the language, but when I used to live here, I was myself working in the taking-advantage-of-the-tourists industry, I'm the last person who should
have fell for this ploy.

The, to top it off, I pretty sure the bus driver stole my phone out of backpack while moving the luggage around.

Still, despite the setbacks, I still felt like I was walking on sunshine...


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 ...