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

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


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


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 Fran├žais, 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 Fran├žais 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!