“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, November 10, 2005

In the news

Recently, the UN Security Council received a proposal from certain world leaders regarding peace and the situation in Myanmar. After this, one of the government owned newspapers published an open letter. Let me copy the first two paragraphs:

“Gentlemen (Mr. Vaclav Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu), I would like to ask you ‘Do you know that according to Political Science, deception will be rampant all over the world without Abhidhamma, which means reflections of man’s mind on material world?

To elaborate my statement, man is to view the things in the right perspective, and only then will his views be right. If one’s views are contradistinction to what things really are, it will not be in conformity with Abhidhamma, and supposing, at that time one expresses one’s views, they will be lies because the views are far away from the truth.”


Even without the English errors and other fluff and rambling, the article is such a blatant example of propaganda that it’s upsetting that it is the only thing that Myanmar people read. The whole page article went on to restate history in its terms, and it takes an extreme position of defensiveness as if they know they are wrong, but still have to validate everything they do.

There are so many tragic things about Myanmar, its politics, its people, its education, its government. I’m reading an excellent book right now called Finding George Orwell in Burma, which is basically a travelogue and history of the country using where George Orwell lived as a premise. It constantly brings thoughtful examples and anecdotes to my mind and I want to rhapsodize about each and every one. A whole generation’s general education has been lost here, and the majority of the people don’t agree with the way their own country is run, but no one (inside or out) seems to be able (or willing) to do anything about it.

On a side note, the government has just decided to move their capital out of Yangon! It’ll be somewhere up in a valley between here and Mandalay; quite strategic too, as it was the Japanese command center. A good article to read about this is from the Independent: http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article325441.ece

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Vagabonding al Mundo

Vagabonding al Mundo

This is the link to Cara's blog... she was with me when I recently travelled around Myanmar. She's also an amazing person, and all these posts make a fascinating read!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The beating

I saw my first beating today. It was quite scary. Most of the time here, you don't really see much of anything resembling unhappiness of the people, but today it was a current that was no longer below the surface.

In front of the FMI Center, near to the main tourist market, there was a taxi driver. A policeman was reaching in through his window and repeatedly banging his head with very hard punches. It just made me cringe. It sounds tame but it is upsetting when you see it. You just want to yell at the policeman, but doing anything here will only make things worse.

In New Zealand policemen are resepectable, nice people who are upstanding citizens of the community. Here, when I see any man in a uniform (which is quite often), I shudder and think to myself how slimy they are, and how their smiles are so much more sickening, but I'm probably being unfair. After all, not all policemen are bad people. Also, there are rapists and child-beaters and abusers in the rest of the population. I'm being judgemental and assuming, and its wrong, but here I can't help it.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Trip North

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to the middle north of Myanmar. I went to the tourist sites of Mandalay and Bagan and each was unique and special in its own way, and it was really good to get out of Yangon. Cara and I caught a Burmese festival called Thadingyat (Festival of Lights), were our bums were pinched and monks called out rude things to us… but I’ll give you the full comment on that later when I have more time.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

At the Airport

As I was waiting to collect my friend from the Yangon airport, I reflected on its welcome to the country. There was a depressing dingyness, party due to the existence of only orange lights (with only half working), but also due to the cream walls (such a bad color match). The humidity soaked through to the skin and permeated the mood with patient impatience and frustration with bureaucracy and grime.

A little square arrivals hall about 75 meters across is really all that is inside the constantly-under-construction building. The electronic notice board with the arrival times had more beer sponsorship logo than information about flights (although that could be due to the total of 11 flights arriving all day). There was one set of double doors for people to exit through—and each window pane had a “fragile” sticker haphazardly clinging to the middle. Each sticker was from one of the different airlines that come to Yangon (not that many airlines do). The only other significant sign in the large high-ceilinged room is one advertising London cigarettes.

Officious men and women in uniforms meandered back and forth, all wearing badges of permission – just to get into this waiting area I had to pass by 3 people. Thankfully, as I am foreign I didn’t have to pay the requisite 5c bribe to each, though they are probably quite sour about that.

Overpriced “limo” and taxi stands were the only remotely friendly indicators for tourists in the enormous sea of people waiting behind. One older uniformed man with spectacles sat watching the door in case anyone crazy enough to run through without permission was held back.

I’m glad I came to greet my friend—not that she hasn’t experienced third world airports—it’s just such a depressing place. The new one in Mandalay makes it look like a shack!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Service Culture

It’s been a while since I paid a lot for a haircut, and even when I do, it’s usually not much more than a trim. I went for my regular cut today and got a relaxing glimpse of how Myanmar do things—all I can say is no wonder they’re so relaxed and seemingly at peace! This is what I mean by a service culture. The last haircut I had in the west was done in less than 10 minutes. What happened to the personal care and individual attention that we used to have in the west? I was treated so well today, but I suppose that is because the labor is cheap. This is an argument against money and capitalism, because it symbolizes the mad drive to make more of it, faster.

As haircuts usually do, they started with the shampoo. But, wow, so much more, as massage was included. And not just one… about five! Before I even had shampoo on my head, the assistant was rubbing away at my dry head. I doubt that in the entirety of my life, that my hair has ever been that clean. Two sets of shampoo, and gently massaging to rub it in each time. I think I sat in that chair for around 40 minutes, being gently massaged, washed and rinsed. When the conditioner had gone in and been washed out, and was sitting in a towel to drip dry, she moved to massage my shoulders, arms and hands! I had each knuckle cracked and no doubt she didn’t miss a single acupuncture point anywhere in the region. Believe me, I could tell she was definitely a right handed person—those thumbs could be dangerous! As I was sitting there, I was enjoying the time—but I have the time. I did think that if I was a busy Western businessman, I would be yelling at someone in impatience by now. When did time become a commodity? We should take time to relax, and if that occurs during our haircuts, so what? Perhaps that’s why we don’t have lovely service like this left.

So the haircut itself was an interesting experience. The hairdresser was a young guy from Hong Kong, who, logically, only speaks Chinese. So it went from me, in English, to a Myanmar girl whose English was not so great, to a little discussion in Myanmar, to someone finally explaining it to him in Chinese. A lot was lost in the translation. I wanted a layered cut, with my bangs trimmed a bit. I said that, which she seemed to understand, and much later after much back and forth, she asked “All one length?” and I thought it was a question referring to something like did I want a ‘V’ at the back or the front sides shorter than the rest, so I said, “One length.” As you can probably guess, layered went out the window! When it came to my bangs, he laughed at me, and the translation came across as “Who cut your bangs?” I guess even they noticed that I trimmed them myself. Oops. It ended with “Your hair so soft,” and, “Your hair nice color,” while they all took turns fingering it. Lovely.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Going down the river

Yesterday, on the way back from day trip to one of the little villages on the river delta, we were in a little canoe, traversing the little canal to return to Yangon. It made me reflect on how wonderful it is to travel by boat—it’s relaxing and peaceful, but river travel has all but been phased out in the west these days—boats are built for speed and adrenalin, and rivers are just not as important as they used to be. Granted New Zealand rivers are far too rapid infused to be much good as travel-ways, but elsewhere, the plane, the train, the road have all overtaken the river. It only survives in Asia, really, and on the Nile of course.

Watching the sights slowly pass by, being close to the water, feeling the waves as each ferry passed us by. The journey took an hour from Twante to Yangon, but each and every minute was fantastic—Fiona had a nap, while Leslie and I took pictures of the sights we’d whizzed by too fast in the jeep. All the locals waved to us in pleasure—those people must be very content (if only they didn’t have other poverty issues!). I guess the poverty and slowness is simply a reflection of the necessity for faster forms of transport.

I must say I enjoy living on a river (and a harbor). It’s such a busy place, and yet, still has the feeling of being central, even though it isn’t really. While I don’t take advantage of the river much, it’s still there for when I need its peace and activity!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Rainstorm

So I went out walking today. So it was raining. Normal people stay inside when it rains, but hell, if you did that here, you wouldn’t leave home for the 5 or so months of the rainy season. It always rains. All the time. I can’t remember a single day since I’ve been here that it hasn’t rained at least once. Maybe there wasn’t one. I was at the market and it started raining, so I took out my umbrella, went home, dropped my packages off and then went out again. Today’s mission, I decided, was to look for/at the bookshops of Yangon. That may sound strange, but there really aren’t that many. I had two that I found in a book that I decided to go and find. I found the first one without too much incident. It had some really bad novels and a couple of Shakespeare books. I bought the Myanmar Culture Shock and a phrase book. On my way to the second shop, I managed to collect two young street boys. I knew one from before when he sold me the Laos Lonely Planet for $2. I was in a good mood, so I chatted to them: always a bad idea. They decided I was friendly enough, so they followed me, asked me about my life—how long in Myanmar? Where do you live? What’s your name Do you want to buy postcards? No? But you haven’t bought any yet and you really do need to buy some. They asked me where I was going so I told them 37th street. They decided that this was a good mission and took it upon themselves to ensure that I got there (no doubt hoping that I would buy some postcards somewhere along the way to get rid of them), pointing out the interesting sites along the way—this is a movie theatre. This is another movie theater. This one’s Malaysian. This one’s Indian, no wait it’s Thai (as we all looked up at the very visible hand-painted movie signs). It wasn’t particularly useful, but I didn’t mind.

It started to pour with rain. I didn’t know rain until I experienced my first tropical rainstorm. It rains so hard that you’re drenched in seconds, the rain coming sideways, but the temperature doesn’t change, ensuring that even though the rain isn’t chilling you, you will still have no doubt that it is raining simply because there is so much water. I was cursing the fact that I left my big umbrella at the plant nursery yesterday, but decided to plough ahead. Sometimes rain storms here pass through quickly, so I decided that’s what would happen today.

We reached 37th street, after the boys almost got run over a couple of times, and they pointed out every street we passed. I turned down it, and started looking for the little bookshop. Meanwhile, the rain kept coming down. It comes down in such volumes that the streets flood very quickly. We walked down the middle so as to avoid the puddles at the edge, and the deep holes the murky puddles hide. Progressively, I got wetter and wetter. I was wearing jeans but they were rolled out so initially I just got the splashes from the road, but the sideways rain meant that soon the cuffs were also damp.

The bookshop turned out to be about 3 blocks down the street, but I didn’t know this, so decided that I would make it there before I was completely drenched. After two blocks, however, when crossing one of the intersecting main roads, it became clear that the rain was too angry to stop anytime soon. I was by this time walking in water up to my ankles. Jandals/flipflops/slippers are not the most ideal shoes to walk in deep water, as they get dragged on by the water (I’m sure I’ve broken pairs like this in the past), but my faithful shoes held (one boy took his off, and the other had his broken a little while later). I knew I was on the last block of the street, so I persevered. By this time I was no only drenched, but wet enough to be dripping. I passed all sorts of Burmese in a similar situation and they all looked at me in shock—a foreign woman braving the storm, and what’s this? Two little boys in tow. They all smiled at me and I sloshed through the now knee deep water laughing to myself. One man even asked me “Are you happy?” Not an existential philosophical question, merely polite concern that I was okay. I told him I was fine. I was actually enjoying it, to be honest. How often to you get completely drenched and walk through puddles with two boys joyfully skipping and splashing beside me.

I learned that they of course have no homes and they gestured that they sleep on the streets where they can find a place—it made me shudder to regard the puddles everywhere that they were gesturing, although I’m sure they have a dry niche somewhere. A lot of the sob stories are cons to insist that you buy them food, give them money, buy their postcards, but they do have truth to them. Still, I will not give money out. During my walk I saw one guy lathered up to really make the most of the “shower”. My boys would duck under drainpipes dumping water to “rinse off” as well, although it was hardly necessary considering the downpour.

I reached the bookshop eventually, and the gate was closed, so I stood under the eaves hoping someone would hear us. They did and invited me inside to drip on their floor, so I bought a few books from their lovely collection. Then came the trek home, which I must say was worse—the entire way I was in up to my knees. I felt the odd plastic rubbish bit skim my foot, and I shudder to think of what else I may have stepped in. Katrina may be happening elsewhere, but I felt my own Katrina type flood of sympathy here, literally. Normally when I walk I’m constantly watching my feet to avoid holes, piles of rubbish, mud, and other junk, but today there was nothing but murky water… I was lucky to find the kerb, really. Lucky not to have slid, or slipped or gone into the holes so that ugly, murky water was only on my feet.

It was a long, long way home, but you never realize how far until it is far, and of course I was not fit for a taxi, so I plodded along with my two companions. They realized I wouldn’t buy postcards from them, or take them to the cozy little street stand for something to eat (my one-track mind was only seeking my home), but they kept entreating me to visit them tomorrow so I could then buy postcards or give them a present. Their disheveled drenched appearance would be touching, but my heart was hardened long ago, and I was in a similar state myself. I did spend some time thinking, though, how glad I was that I had somewhere to come home to.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Sickness

I think that every single country I've been in has caused some kind of issue with my stomach--this includes developped places. There must be some kind of adjustment period. But here, I think I've had the longest adjustment period ever-- so what's your viscosity rating this morning? Oh dear. What a panic. But at least I'm comforted to know that I'm not alone and that everyone else's stomachs are having the same spasms and difficulties.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Getting a bookcase

I finally got a bookshelf this weekend, but it was a huge episode. It was from the library at the Alliance Français, who were replacing their library shelves and selling the old ones for $20. The French teacher Julie’s sister in law works there and knew about it. First we had to go out and hire a truck to transport the bookcase, but then she forgot how to get to the Alliance Français and had to go back to her appartment for the address. We got there okay, truck in tow, but discovered the shelf was enormous! Still, I felt obligated to get it anyway because we had the truck already and they’d reserved it for me. We got it here, to the Grand Mee Ya Hta hotel, then it wouldn’t fit in the service elevator, so I had to pay $8 to have it carried up to the 7th floor, then the hotel measured it and decided it wouldn’t fit through the narrow entryway, but I asked/begged/pleaded with them to bring it up anyway. It fit, alright, but the doors on the bookcase meant that it was overbalanced on one side and wasn’t able to stand up by itself! What a disaster! So I unscrewed the hinges and took the doors off and it’s much better, but have wired it to the one hook that the hotel has on the wall just in case. It looks lovely, but both Julie and I had a complicated day to get it!

Friday, August 19, 2005

End of week 3 - seems like longer

So I've reached the end of my third week here, and the second teaching. The students are wonderful--polite, quiet, yet still teenagers. I teach US History, World History and a Model UN class. Right now, we have no textbooks, but there are still things we can do.

Yangon is great--lots of restaurants and bars, things to do that are interesting and exciting. I'm so glad to be here!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Rain

So it has rained almost every single day since we got here. A lot of the other teachers are concerned that they never see the sun (depression). Personally, I think tropical rain is exciting.

While it is a bit aggravating and amusing when the rain decides to pour outside my 4th floor classroom--the roof must be tin because I really can't speak over the noise. A good forced break I guess. Outside my appartment though, when I feel extremely cosy and dry inside, I love to see the sheets fly across. That's the important thing to understand: rain rarely comes down here--it normally moves sideways, diagonally, and any other way. In other words, umbrellas are useless because you're soaked from the waist down anyway because of the downward direction, not to mention the puddle spashes that come upwards!

I used to think that "sheets" of rain was a great metaphor, but quite hyperbolic and exaggerating! Here, it is absolutely literal. When it's a healthy storm (not just the drizzles that occur the rest of the day), I can't see the pagoda, or even more than 100m clearly from my window. It certainly adds to that other worldly feeling of being here.

At least the rain here isn't cold--while I'm not recommending a douse of water like a bucket falling over you (that wet sensation is certainly a squelchy, yucky feeling), at least it's warm water, and there's no cold wind to make you freeze. In that sense it's the coming inside that makes you colder!

Basically when a day goes by without rain it is plesant and surprising. And when the sun comes out (peeking between clouds is all it ever gets) it's positively glorious!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Boxes

Instead of paying the $12 per kilo for my excessive luggage, I had it air-freighted from Kuwait. I finally got it today (despite it being on the same flight in as I was, two weeks ago). A customs warehouse decided to hold it up for ransom because I foolishly decided to bring dvds and computer programs--these types of things in English are technically illegal here! Tea money tea money--a curse but a blessing in some situations.

It was a delight opening them this evening and discovering what I had packed almost 3 months ago. My appartment looks different--perhaps its the 250 or so books stacked up along the wall because I don't have a bookshelf. My appartment will begin looking my own now, which will be good, but I still long for other things I own to really make it distinct.

Walking down the street

One of the simplest pleasures I have here is simply walking down the street. Not only is it exercise and a means of getting outside, it is also probably the most accurate exposure to Myanmar culture. The street vendors crowd the street--I had quail eggs with sesame seeds the other day, fried in a pan that looks like it's for mini muffins. You can buy any organ or body part and have it fried instantly.

Sure, stepping over the puddles, holes in the drainage, broken bricks and murky muddiness makes an obstacle course of sorts, and you could spend your entire time just watching for yourself. But then you would miss the fantastic sites. Handpainted movie posters with Hindi slogans and sexy stars, nicnac sellers (including a main selling needles from an open umbrella!), children smiling out from behind rice-paste "sun-block" covered cheeks, ladies wearing bright colors and carrying a matching umbrella in thai designs, and people generally moving on their way and going on with business as they do anywhere.

The great thing about Yangon is its size--you really can walk anywhere in downtown, and then walk back too! The suburbs sprawl somewhat, but exploring on bike is still a possibility.

The other day I bought two green plastic chairs for my balcony. Because I already had a few packages, someone from the shop carried them home for me. It must have been comical to see me negotiating the crowds with two chairs following on a little man's head.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Mental images

Myanmar really is one of the most picturesque countries in the world.. everything is beautiful—the people, the children, the sights. Even the garbage and dirty is quaint enough to photograph well, even if it is the mélange of color and shapes and grime lines that make the image so poignant.

There are so many images of the country that stand out to make it unique: The men in their longi skirts, who look like they’re off to have a massage or spend time in a sauna, but are wearing collared shirts and business wear on top in a very clashing combination. The women with their streaks of rice paste across their cheeks, some kind of traditional sun block apparently, although I must say I’ve only seen the sky behind the clouds once or twice since I’ve been here, and the sun, never. The green, sprouting up from every crevice and crack, trees sheltering the train tracks beneath my window, and palm trees swaying in the breeze between two shanties. The mould, growing on every available surface, crawling in army lines up, down and across buildings, and when the rains go, they will be painted away and everything will look fresh and clean instead of just damp. The smiles of everyone I pass, from a child holding an umbrella from the storm, to a lady listing the products I’ve taken from a shelf in the super one supermarket, to the polite men who nod a slight bow of respect as they grin at me. The busy stalls on the street sides with unrecognizable (even to a tropical familiar) fruit and vegetables, and old ladies selling lunch from a curbside fire on small plastic stools. The ancient trucks and buses, crowded full of commuting people, with no windows (at all), and people sitting contently side-by-side chatting amicably with their neighbor. The tea-money, slipping blithely from fingertips to pockets, as hip of payer collides as he passes the briber—he pokes the money in there, as if a true servant or the briber to mighty to touch the other’s lowly fingertips. There’s the mud and water, filling the middle of the suburban intersections, sludging between me and the curb, and sloshing around my ankles as I run across the road. I bought the biggest umbrella I could find, but discovered that it’s too wide to negotiate between other’s umbrellas, and the lampposts, poles, trees, street-stalls, people and other obstacles that fill the roads and roadsides. I’m going to buy a handy purse sized one that doesn’t take up too much space!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Arrival

Well I made it to Myanmar, and not without hassle of course. Got stung for $200 for my handcarry bag in Qatar because it had all my computer/electronic equipment in it and was way too heavy. Some of you I’m sure will snigger and roll your eyes at that, I’m sure. Oh well!

As the plane was coming in it looked like a snow covered landscape, not because of cold, but because of the clouds reflected in the rice paddies. If you’ve seen the rains in India on the news, you can get some idea of what I arrived into—a nice tropical thunderstorm to remind me of why I love Asia! It was very green (in sharp contrast to the dry desert of the Middle East) and muddy. I could see the puddles even from the plane, and the runway itself had around 2 inches of water swirling over it. I’d forgotten how quickly the visibility disappears is like during a monsoon rain. It’s quite spacious yet not sprawling because there just isn’t the same population problem here like there is in the rest of Asia.

It was a little outdoor airport, and I …

Monday, August 01, 2005

Introduction

Here is a copy of my passport photo that has taken me around the world and back. But it's old... so here's a newer one (but still a few years old). Passport expires this year. Whatever will I do then? Well, get another one, of course.