Saturday, October 29, 2016

Life in Hinthada

Four days of teaching completed of the 16 I’m spending up here in the small town of Hinthada, Myanmar. The days are long. The pace has been intense, but all in all, I think the learning goals are being achieved and everything is going swimmingly.

This is mostly due to the students themselves. They’re very attentive. They seem quite motivated to learn, and although they’ve never been taught by a native English speaker before, requiring me to be very clear and deliberate in my instructions, they take direction well and are very willing to be active participants in their own learning. Too often, students come into an English class and expect to learn just by being there. They expect to be taught, that magically they’re going to emerge as better English speakers without having to work at it. Not these ladies. Near the end of the video, you’ll see a scene with the ladies chattering away (in English) in pairs after I had assigned them a speaking task. The sound of students enthusiastically speaking to each other is music to an English teacher’s ears. 

Yes, ladies. I’ve got 14 women in my class. It worked out that all of the male students, except one, tested into the lower level class which is being taught] by my friend and colleague Jack. The one who tested into the higher group I had to demote. Yeah, he just wasn’t getting it; he was in the wrong group. It was an awkward moment when I had to tell him he was being ‘sent down’, but it’s for the best. 

As for the town of Hinthada itself, it’s like no place else I’ve ever stayed. I think that word spreads quickly in a tight knit community like this, and wherever we go, Jack and I run into people who know who we are and know what we’re doing here. Still, I’m sure many of the people we encounter have never seen an actual Westerner before face to face, and again wherever we go, people stop and stare. It doesn’t bother me. In fact, when someone is gawking at you, it’s an immediate excuse to say hello and strike up a conversation. Mind you, my Burmese language skills remain so poor that that conversation is very brief and simple, but there we are.

Another thing that stands out about this place is the bugs. They’re everywhere. From tiny little ants that seem to enjoy running across my laptop screen, to swarms of grasshoppers, to weird jumping spiders that look like scorpions, to giant katydids the size of a finger, this place is insect central! Last night, we wanted to enjoy the night before our day off out on the balcony of the hotel. Couldn’t do it due to a new infestation of billions of bugs.

The video below shows you sort of a day-in-the-life here. From breakfast at the tea shop to my morning commute to scenes of me actually teaching! Enjoy.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

On the Road to Hinthada

Civ VI has arrived!

I left the house with plenty of time to spare. I had a languid breakfast and managed to pick up a copy of Civ VI from my local pirated software shop. It was 10:30 AM and I was scheduled to pick up my motorcycle from the other side of the river at 1 PM.  I had wanted to pick it up at noon are earlier, but that didn’t fit with my motorcycle’s caretaker’s schedule.

After a stop at the office, I traveled to Dala and waited. He showed up at 1:45. Unfortunately, I was told, that the elements had had an effect on my motorbike as it had been sitting out in the open these
Bike repair One
last nine months. The front break grip and its accompanying reservoir of brake fluid had deteriorated and needed replacing. 

Fine. I was okay with this. We had no formal contract for the stewardship of my motorbike. They were doing me a favor by allowing me to park it at their home. Outside. Exposed. I wasn’t sure how this effected the brakes, but there we are. Point being, it took a couple hours to fix this issue with the brakes, and it was past 4:30 when I finally got to leave Dala for the long journey to my temporary teaching gig in Hinthada.
Son of tire repair guy

I wasn’t even out of Dala when I found myself with a flat tire. Half an hour to get that repaired (not fixed) and as I was just starting out on this 180 km drive, the sun was starting to set. 

The repair didn’t hold. The back tire got another flat. This time out in the countryside of the Ayerwaddy River Delta. No one around. Fortunately, I had noted that there had been  a silver tire on the side of the road (advertisement for a tire repair shop) about 3/4th of a mile back from where I noticed the flat. Pushed the bike back that distance.  They replaced the innertube (which I woulda done in the first place,
Bike repair #3
but didn’t know how to say it), and off I was again into the fading light, still 100 miles from my goal of Hinthada. 

After it got dark, my driving necessarily changed dramatically. I had to slow down. There are no street lights on the rural roads of Myanmar, and it was a cloudy, moonless night. Outside the halo of my headlights, everything was completely black. There were people out there, no doubt, but as electricity has not yet come to the majority of Myanmar’s countryside, there were no lights. I had to monitor the road for pot holes, as some of them can be devastating (like giving me another flat). Oncoming traffic didn’t dim their high beams half the time, leading to blindness. There was no meridian line in the road to demarcate on side from the other, and the shoulders of the road were blurry on the edges of the headlights. I was in constant worry that I was on the wrong side of the road.

Hallucinations set in. You drive three or four hours under these harrowing conditions and see if they don’t happen to you too. Any little movement became a stray dog wandering into the road. Pedestrians walking down these country roads took on a ghostly quality with their erratic flashlight movements. What I had anticipated to be a 4 hour ride stretched longer due to how slowly I needed to drive in the darkness of the Burmese hinterland.

Eventially, I reached Hinthada. I’m set up now in the guesthouse in a mediocre room for my 2 week assignment. Tomorrow, I meet my students. 

Enjoy the video. 


Friday, October 21, 2016

Hinthada Here I Come!

In a few days, I'm off to the town of Hinthada, Ayerwaddy Region to take on a challenging short-term teaching gig. Our client is the United Nations Development Program, who employ or help fund a sizeable group of Myanmar all over the country. Starting next week, they're bringing 60 or so of them together and another teacher and I will be delivering an intensive, two and a half week, English course. 

I say it's going to be challenging due the hours of instruction. Six and a half hours a day, six days a week. Now, most of us are used to working 8 hours a day, and so 6.5 hours may not sound like a big deal. Teaching is a bit of a different type of work, however. I like to have at least half an hour of prep time for each hour I teach, so it's not like I just show up and work. Then of course there's the difficulty for the students. Sitting in a classroom for that amount of time learning the same subject is going to be tough on them. Point being, it's not an ideal situation pedagogically. 

An 1855 watercolor of Hinthada
Hinthada itself I know very little about. It's sort of an odd place to bring together all these people. It's a small city of about 200,000 people along the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy river. There's a university there, two hotels and lots of river traffic. How it got chosen as the venue for this assignment is unknown to me.
Still, it looks like a pretty town, and of course, it's nice to get out and experience a new place on occasion. Badger will be staying where he stayed when I was Indonesia. 

Videos to come!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Joko's Java Journey 11: The Final Episode

This blog is dedicated to the  memory of Pak Soebali. He and his family hosted me when I was a foreign exchange student in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1986. They weren’t paid for having my hungry mouth to feed. They were just interested in being exposed to someone from another culture. These were my Indonesian “parents”. 

I repaid them by being a bad teenager. I stayed out way too late. Oftentimes, I’d come home to find the front gate locked, and I had no key. 11:30 was my curfew; not so early I couldn’t be home as  a 16 year old. I never
Mama Nia, Ira and I, 1986, American
embassy, Jakarta.
apologized for my bad behavior, but I do so now. 

Pak Soebali joined his beloved wife, Mama Nia, 15 October, 2016.  Without this family, I wouldn’t have had the Indonesian experience I did thirty years ago, I wouldn’t have gotten interested in world travel, and I wouldn’t be where I am today. 

Inna-lilahi wa inna elayhi raje’ooun

Back to the Java Journey. My last post.
When we last touched base, I was in Bandung (BTW, if you couldn’t watch the video for that, I’ve edited out the offending copyrighted music, so it’s available worldwide). My host dragged me to a concert attended by Bandung’s robust community of “Stoners”.

Now, I had a definition of what a stoner was in my head. Been using the term since I was a teenager. Turns out, Stoner has another definition: fervent fans of The Rolling Stones. I was being taken to a concert of nothing but Rolling Stones cover bands. It was awesome. Even though they’re still touring (they’ve even got a new album coming out soon), I doubt I’ll ever see the actual Rolling Stones play live. This was as close as one could come. I was amazed by the talent, enthusiasm and energy of all these bands. 

In the morning, it was time for one last leg of the journey, Bandung to Jakarta. I found somewhat of a backdoor into the megaplex that is Southeast Asia’s largest city. One last glimpse of the scenic hills and valleys of West Java. I made good time too. Except for having to pass the slowdowns caused by trucks going uphill, the traffic wasn’t bad at all.

Then I hit Jakarta. My friend who’d lent me the motorcycle lived on the far west side of town, and his place was my final destination. I got to the outskirts of Jakarta at about 11 AM.
I reached my friend’s house at 6 PM.  Seven freaking hours to get from one side of the city to the other.    

After returning the motorcycle, my last night in Indonesia was spent in the same place as my first night there, 30 years ago, at the home Pak Soebali.

All in all, like all my previous motorcycle journeys, this trip has left me thirsty for more. In my head, I’ve already penciled in two additional loops to be traveled in Indonesia in the future.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Joko's Java Journey 10: Bandung

Bandung is the 3rd largest city in the world's 4th largest country. As you can see by the map, it's surrounded by hills, and since it's at elevation, it's a bit cooler than the steamy equatorial lowland parts of Java around it. Through an online expat forum in which I participate, I met a British gal who invited me to come stay with her and her husband at their place in Bandung. I was grateful to be hosted by a local and gladly accepted. 

After making my way through Bandung's constantly insane traffic (I've never seen more motorcycles in one place in my life), I found myself winding my way up a narrow road leading up to the highlands around Bandung. There, my host's modest villa hosted me, three dogs and a cute nephew. 

My new friend took me on a tour which I'll never forget. First, we went to a restaurant at the top of a hill and got to look down on the valley below. From there, we got to see the rain clouds start to make their way in. I could have spent hours there; they had decent food, but unfortunately, had run out of beer. At 2 PM. 

Then, it was off to a very unusual tourist attraction. A hilltop Chinese cemetery. If you've never been to a Chinese cemetery, they're quite remarkable. Each family has it's own compound, each covering thousands of square feet and complete with shrines and monuments. I don't know the proportion of Bandung's population of Chinese descent, but I was amazed by the size of the place. Again, the cemetery wasn't a site, it was a neighborhood. It went on and on. 

Getting there wasn't easy. The main road to the place was closed for repair, forcing my host and I to try to make our way through the back alleyways. That was intense. Imagine zooming down a thoroughfare barely wide enough to allow two motorcycles to pass one another. No street signs. Google maps on the phone not very accurate. As you might imagine, we got lost. Navigating our way to our destination proved impossible.
Fortunately, we both spoke Indonesian, and the locals are more than just helpful when it comes giving directions. This random guy we met, pictured right, guided us all the way to where we wanted to go. 

After some time driving around the place, enjoying the scenery, lamenting about the rampant graffiti and finding ourselves on roads that led nowhere, it was time to head back. I thought it'd be easy. Just head downhill. That said, we hadn't left any breadcrumbs. We didn't know how to get back. With the road closure, it wasn't such an easy task to get back to Bandung. 

We were heading down what turned out to be the wrong road when we were stopped by a very helpful local. An old guy sitting at the cemetery, nothing to do, but happy to help a couple lost foreigners. What I really loved was how he phrased his advice to us. 

"You can go that way," he told us, "but if you do, you will only end up turning around and coming back here." 

"You can turn right, but if you do, you will only end up coming back this way" 

We made our way back. Enjoy the video.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

JJJ9: Purwokerto to Bandung

Java is an island of tremendous power. Whether one looks at it from a geographic point of view, in that it's one of the most actively volcanic islands in the world, or from a spiritual perspective, i.e., Java's highlands are the home of many mystics and shaman. A hundred or so kilometers south of the island of Java, the Indian Ocean tectonic plate subsumes to the Indonesian plate. The Java Trench resulting from this tectonic action is one of the deepest in the world. In basic terms, all that stuff from the Indian plates eventually comes up to the surface. Java emanates energy. I felt it. It inspired me. The whole way.

Purwokerto, a city I got to know from a hotel not letting me check in when  I got there, has been called the crossroads of Java. It certainly lies at the central point of the various bus and railway lines that crisscross the most populous island on Earth. Here's the vid from me going from Dieng to Purwokertp.

I was continued to be surprised by the quality of roads in Java. For most of this ride, I was on what could truly be called 'backroads'. Two lane highways, but really WIDE two lane roads. That said, there's plenty of interesting backcountry roads to be seen in the next video, Purwokerto to Bandung.


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 ...