Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Myanmar Motorcycle Journey 2: Nyapyitaw to Kalaw

At the time of writing this, I am finishing up my 8th day on the this trip, trying to think back to what it felt like on the 2nd day, the subject of this blog, my first day driving on the motorbike, from Naypyitaw to Kalaw. So much has happened since then that it makes it hard to remember, but I think, in a word, that first day on the road was one of exhilaration.

My motorbike, with luggage

As I've mentioned in previous blogs, I have been anticipating this. I've been in Myanmar nearly two years now, and as I've always wanted to do anywhere I've lived, exploring the place, on my terms, at my own pace, stopping when I want to stop, going where I want to go is how I want to travel. You can't do that on a tour or with other people. You can only do it on your own. Now that I own my own motorbike, I can do just that.

Joko, stop now. 
Most don't understand. It's been asked why would I needlessly subject myself to re-injuring my back just two months after I had major surgery? (Answer being is that I had the surgery so that there wouldn't be any chance of re-injuring it) The few Myanmar friends I've explained this trip to sort of understand it, but at the same time, think I'm weird. Driving a motorcycle isn't fun; it's just a means to get from one place to another. Certainly, they think, there's nothing enjoyable in a 200 km motorcycle ride. Okay. Agreed, to some extent. Riding a motorbike IS fun, albeit 200 km of it can be trying, I'm buoyed by the thrill of seeing lots of new stuff I've never seen before. See, I'm a foreigner. Everything I see here is new and interesting.

Maybe some of my motivation is that I need to prove to myself and others that I'm still a young man. I can tame the iron horse and go where none of you have ever been. A mid-life crisis, if you will. I dunno. All I can say is that I'm having experiences, compiling memories and learning about myself and the world more than I ever did during my years just grinding it out working in Amerika.

Lots of what's interesting on the road here I actually have seen before, here, many times, and if you follow me through this trip on this blog and my videos, you'll see many times too. Ox carts on the highway. Roadside pagodas. Flocks of goats and cows. Vehicles piled high with the most amazing combinations of people and goods; all of this you'll see in this series of videos. Even though I've seen them all before, it still gives me a thrill to be driving along and run into something quintessentially Myanmar.

And don't wear feet. 

This video also taught me a few things about using my GoPro Camera, things which I've applied in continued shooting. First off, camera angle. In that vid, it was too low: too much road, not enough surroudings. More importantly, holding my head steady, something I didn't do in these shots. Normally, when riding a motorbike, your head is in constant motion; checking the sideview mirrors, you gear and speed on the dashboard, what's coming up around the next turn. That leads to jerkiness in video. I'm shooting better now. 

I'm in the second half of my vacation now, which is mostly beach time. Time I can work on new videos too.  

Road Report:
Distance: 221 km
Time: 6.5 hours
Road Conditions (see the key): Excellent 5%; Good 65%; Fair 30%

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Myanmar Motorcycle Journey 1 - Yangon to Nay Piy Taw

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Your humble blogger and traveler
When heading out on a long vacation with multiple stops, I think it's inevitable that there will be some hiccoughs along the way. Things don't always go as planned. Mistakes are made. Maybe it's best to get the near disasters out of the way at the start, as there are a finite number of problems that can occur, having them at the beginning of the journey ensures smoother sailing down the road. Right?

My bus was leaving for Naypyitaw at 10:00 AM from the Mingalar Aung Highway bus station which is way on the outskirts of northern Yangon, perhaps 15 miles from my home. I was advised to be there at 9:30 AM. I left at 8:30 AM. One hour to get across town seemed reasonable. 

I hailed a taxi and he wanted 6000 Kyats. I was thinking 4 or 4 and a half. I knocked him down to 4500, and off we went. Err.. Off we went very slowly through the horrible traffic of the Hledan-Pyay Road intersection. After 10 minutes, we'd gone 2 blocks. I could have walked faster, and I probably should have, but I figured I had plenty of time.

In a flash, as I was reviewing in my head what I had with me, it occurred to me that I'd forgotten to bring my bus ticket! Doh! Stupid! I gave the taxi driver 1000 Kyats, thinking I'd run the two blocks back to my apartment and start over. He asked me if I needed to go back home, I said yes, so he whipped a U-turn, and we went back the two blocks in 30 seconds (the traffic is all going one way). Back to the apartment, got the ticket while the taxi waited and off we were again. Traffic was okay; we kept moving, but again this was a long journey.

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Then we hit gridlock. Stuck at moving 1 mph. This went on for 20 minutes, and when Google maps told me I was still 4 miles from my destination at 9:50 AM, I knew I was going to miss the bus. Oh well. I was resigned to it. There are dozens of buses from Yangon to Naypyitaw every day, and the fare is about $5.00, so although I was anticipating an inconvenience, it wasn't the end of the world.

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My amazing cab driver
My taxi driver asked me when my bus was leaving. I told him 10. He vocalized a grunt of disappointed understanding, and after going through me forgetting my ticket, he seemingly had something at stake to get me to my bus on time. When the gridlock finally cleared, he drove faster and leaned on his horn. Meanwhile, the bus company called me to inquire about why I hadn't shown up yet. They didn't speak English, so I handed my phone to the taxi driver. There was an excited conversation as the taxi driver continued to speed towards the bus station. After he hung up, he told me in fairly good English (I'm continually surprised by how well some taxi drivers speak my language) “You go on bus at street”.

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The taxi driver hailing a bus

Even though we got there at 10:07 AM, I got on the bus as it was leaving the station. I gave the driver a 5000 Kyats note, and along with 1000 I'd already given him for the detour back to my apartment, he ended up with the 6000 originally quoted. Worth every penny for me.

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Me, stoked I caught the bus
I sit here now writing this 5 days later. I'm in the middle of the trip and it's been great. One story at a time, however. 

The video below details the rest of the first day. I wanted to see what the camera angles on my GoPro looked like on the helmet. I wanted to see much I could increase the speed of the footage. Much better and interesting video to come as I get into the voyage. 


Monday, December 14, 2015

Vacation Anticipation Syndrome

One of the best things about my job here in Myanmar is the amount of time off we get.  Work eight weeks, get a week off. Work another 8 weeks, get two weeks off. We get a month off in April. Unfortunately for me, certain circumstances have prevented me from enjoying my breaks to their fullest here in 2015.

In April, I was doing a challenging training course. In July, I hurt my back halfway through my journey through Penang.  In October, my time off was used to get back surgery. Now comes the December holiday break, and I am so looking forward to my upcoming motorcycle tour which starts a week from tomorrow.

I've already written about my plans on a previous blog, and although they've changed a bit, I won't go into detail about the itinerary. Suffice to say I can't stop thinking about it! Will my motorcycle hold up? (Of course it will; it's brand new)  Will I hold up? (Less certain) What happens if I run into trouble? (I'll deal with it) There are some nagging fears that in some ways make the trip more exciting. If I were entirely sure I'd be safe the whole time, it wouldn't be as interesting!

This trip is new for me in my disregard for planning. Normally, here in SE Asia, I book all my accommodation online beforehand, so I know where I'm going to be and go. This time, I've only done that for the first three nights of the 14 day adventure. Yeah, I still want to have the security of knowing where I'm going and knowing there's going to be a reserved room for me when I get there, but I can do that on the road too. I want the flexibility to change my plans as they go along. I want to be able to stay an extra day somewhere if I love it there even if that means changing the plans down the road.

Some people travel with no plans or reservations at all. Some people meticulously plan out every detail ahead of time. I'm looking for a happy medium between those two strategies.

In any case, I can't wait for it to start!

Yesterday, I bought something specifically for using on the road. I got myself a GoPro. It's my 8th video camera in the last 8 years. Going to mount it on top of my motorcycle helmet and bring you video like you've never seen before from my ongoing travel video series.

I had to test out the new camera today, and although the GoPro isn't the better at recording ukulele videos than my previous camera, it provides a unique point of view.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Basketball Obesity

The year was 1988. I was 18 years old, just finished high school and about to head off to college. My parents had bought a new home up in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. I'm not exactly sure what was going on in terms of the real estate buying-selling process, but me and my folks were up at the house on Old Ranch Road being greeted by the outgoing residents who were showing us around their home which was about to become our home.

I can't remember the guy's name, but the patriarch of this outgoing clan was a really tall, lanky guy who was in his golden years. One of the unique things about the homestead on Old Ranch Road is that it had a basketball court. Also coulda been used for badmitton, volleyball or futsal; I think the real estate term woulda been a sportcourt. I was a teenager; basketball is my favorite sport, so I went down to the court and asked if I could shoot. A ball was produced, and for the first time in too few many occasions, I practiced shooting.

After a bit, I was joined by the old guy selling the house. Maybe this was the last time he shot; certainly so on the court he'd installed. I found out later that this old guy had been a college basketball star (he was about 6'6”) back in the day.

It's somewhat likely that that time shooting hoops with me on what was still HIS court, was the last time this lifetime basketball player practiced the sport he loved. Like I said, he was in his golden years, and I don't think many retirement homes have basketball courts.

Even if I lose 70 pounds, I will never be the basketball player I once was. Even into my late 30's, I could go out and play against the very best in the community basketball scene. Younguns in their 20's; no problem. Now, I've gotten fat and have chronic back problems.

Thing is, my mind doesn't reflect my body. In my head, I can still make all those moves I made in my prime.

Yesterday, I went out to the one and only basketball facility in Yangon. It was a tremendous 3-court covered pavilion next to a Chinese Buddhist temple. In my life, I've spent thousands of hours on the basketball court. Yesterday, was the first time I'd hoisted it up in over two years. As regards to the back, I felt fine. Later that night, it was sore, but not horribly so. Right now, I feel fine.

Back when I played a lot, I occasionally played against guys in their 50's and 60's. I endeavor to do that too. I love the game too much not to. Besides, even after 2 years away, just practicing shooting, I can still nail the 3-pointer and I've got a deadly mid range jumper.

From back in Seattle..

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Chinese Beds and Myanmar Carpenters

About six months ago, I was very happy to buy, on the cheap, a nice queen-size mattress from a colleague who was leaving the country. I also bought a queen-size bed frame from a local retailer, as a nice mattress shouldn't just be laying on the floor.

Last week, as I was sitting on my bed, eating and watching TV, I heard a crack and then suddenly, the middle of my bed was slumping downward. I heard the sound of metal clanging. When I found the piece of metal that had made the noise, and looked under the bed, I realized what had happened. One of the bed frame's mid-mattress supporting legs had broken off.

I felt disappointed, but not surprised. See, this 6-month-old bed frame was the latest of dozens, if not hundreds, of products I've bought here in my time in Asia whose quality has proven to be utter shit. Here in Myanmar, as well as in Thailand, I've bought so much luggage, furniture, computer accessories, clothing, what have you, almost all of which has broken, failed or collapsed well before I'm accustomed to. Why is this?

Although there are no laws here that a product must be labeled "Made in ____" like there are in America, I'm pretty sure most of this crap is made in China. Okay, you may note, China exports lots of products to the USA, and it's not that bad. I suspect that Chinese exporters have two levels of quality control: stuff that's going to America or elsewhere in the developed world, and the junk they send to other Asian countries.  That's what I get. I know I'm a heavy guy, and maybe the designers weren't expecting there to be weight on only one side of a queen sized bed, but still, there's no reason why the welds on a bed frame should fail after six months! Bed frames should be really strong and last for decades!

In America, I woulda gone back to the store where I'd bought the product and complained. Here, that doesn't happen, so I thought about how to fix it.

Here's a picture of the mid-bed support near the head of the bed that's still intact (although you might notice it's already starting to bend)

Here's the bed frame at the foot where the leg broke and you can see that it's sagging.

Well, this didn't seem like it would be too difficult for me to fix. I figured that all I needed was a piece 4"x4" cut to just the right length, and I could just shimmy it under the support beam and all would be fine. Back home, I'd just go down to the lumber yard and ask for such a piece of wood and I'd be done.

Problem is, I've never seen a lumber yard here in Yangon; there's no Home Depot or Lowes in Myanmar. Despite living here for 20 months now, I had no idea how to get a simple chunk of wood.

I drew up a draft of what I wanted, asked my landlord if he knew of a carpenter (which he did), and then asked if he'd please pass the draft on to the carpenter so that he could make this support for me. I explained it was for my bed. Eventually, I heard back from the carpenter that he wasn't going to do this until he looked at my bed and saw the problem. Okay. Fair enough.

Now, in America, if you have a tradesman come to your home to inspect a needed repair, you're adding $100 to the bill just for him to knock on your door. Not so much here. After inspection, the carpenter suggested multiple supports, drilled into the metal of the frame, for which he was going to charge me 7000 kyats to produce and install, i.e., $5.38.

Seemed a reasonable price to me.

Off they went. They measured and then cut the new bed legs out on my balcony.

Then came the installation process. Although I originally thought of doing this repair myself, and I'm perfectly capable of doing so, these guys had power tools. In the semi-permanent existence of an ESL teacher in SE Asia, we don't own power tools.

I had to laugh after they installed the first leg. The new wooden middle support lifted up the back two corner legs half an inch off the floor. Hilarious. I thought for a sec that he'd need to remove the wood support, shave a bit off the bottom of the leg and then put it back on. After a bit of thought, I understood that the whole frame had bent a bit while not being supported, and once the mattress was put back on and particularly with my 230 pounds lying on top of it, the edges of the frame would bend back to the ground.

The carpenter's solution to the one corner being off the floor? A little different. It's ironic as this solution is what I had thought to use for the problem as a whole at the start: a shim.

I don't know how long this solution is going to last. Unfortunately, my bed is not the site of lots of rigorous activity.  I do want to change that.


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 ...