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

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Zorig, departure, and more

On the plane from Bangkok I sat next to the most interesting
character. He was a Siberian (Northern Mongolian) Russian who
originally came to Myanmar 20 years ago to be a monk--which he was for
16 years! He now works in some kind of joint-venture oil company (that
doesn't get any oil, he said!), and just loves Myanmar, but regrets
his drinking habits and is fascinated with religion. He spoke Thai,
Burmese, Russian, and his Mongolian dialect, among other languages,
and his English was excellent (and self-taught or so he said). Perhaps
he was a spy, and a very charming one. What a very interesting

So I have left Myanmar for good. It has been a surreal few weeks and
an even more unreal departure. Friends are gone, there are no
farewells or the slow move towards end of term to prepare us. Yangon
is still a crazy town, but at least aid is arriving (as are
journalists!), but the government still has a tight reign on
everything. The foreigners that were getting through before are now
blocked from going to even delta regions of Yangon Division. I met two
very frustrated photojournalists who are going home empty handed, but
not for lack of trying. Aid trucks were going down with local groups
every day, so aid was reaching the people, and other agencies finally
got government permission. ASEAN is supposed to be helping and now Ban
Ki Moon is in town to discuss the situation. Big Gen Than Shwe finally
made an appearance as well! Supposedly he was hiding away and shunning
the bad luck/fortune of the situation. Two boats of refugees that the
government asked to leave a monastery apparently sunk with 1300 people
aboard, but that's still unconfirmed and rumours about here and get
larger and larger with exaggeration the further they spread.

Myanmar and those hardworking long-suffering people are getting on
with their lives with the little bit of aid that gets through. How
much have you given to help?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How effective are we?

As ASEAN pledges to manage the arriving aid, and large NGOs and media
gain access to the devastated Irrawaddy delta, things are moving along
in terms of the aid in Myanmar. For a while they were complaining of
not being allowed in, but the small cracks that were always there have
now widened and aid is getting through. Better late than never.

As I mentioned before, there are three types of aid: big agencies,
small NGOs and independent aid groups. The most aid I've heard about
has been from the third group--those average people like myself that
just want to help out and can't see an effective way of working
through the agencies, so hire a truck, buy aid, and do it themselves.
It's great to see everyone having such a helping spirit, but having
been part of several groups doing this, and observing others, it's
frustrating to see that so many willing and intelligent people cannot
do as much as they want to to help. We are all here, we do not need
visas, we are available and very willing to help. But how much can we
do, honestly? I've said before that one of the best things we can do
is raise money, but it's really hard to direct that to places that
will ensure the amount is spent in the best possible way, stretched
the furthest, and benefiting the most number of people for the longest
period of time.

Each an every group involved has had troubles and challenges, and
there is an enormous learning curve as we all figure out the best way
to organize, purchase, distribute and help. We are amateurs and we
aren't trained, but we want to help. The divide between the three
types of aid is frustrating, but even more is that we cannot be more

It's frustrating that the government of this country is not doing more
to help it's own people, and is also harming it's own people. I have
no doubt that the people of the delta will bounce back onto their
feet, but how much struggle and time will it take. How much should we
give that is not too much?

Aid agencies are saying the best thing we can do is stimulate the
local economies, particuarly the supply and demand lines. Instead of
buying fishing nets in Yangon, we should buy them in the village,
stimulating the supply line that was naturally there. So we're working
on this! I learned more about fishing nets today than I think I ever
did. Did you know a finished net costs around $30? Of is that the
foreigner price? That's another one of our challenges!

I am pleased to report, however, that the aid is definately getting
through in large quantities and in the two weeks since the cyclone the
people are now in a better situation than they were after it hit. How
much better could they be if more had been done sooner? Who knows? I
guess the only relief is that aid is happening!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Aid in Myanmar

In Myanmar, aid is not as simple as it is portrayed in the media. Nor
is the situation, the government, the needs or the wants. I will not
deny that the government is as corrupt as any can be. Indonesia under
Suharto would not be a bad comparison. The scalping and gouging that
has occurred with the price of everything since the cyclone is typical
of this. As my landlady said, once the price of things goes up, it
stays up, and will never come back down. Sellers realise that they can
charge a higher price so greed sets in. There have been lots of
stories about the government collecting the aid for themselves, either
stockpiling it to sell (which I have seen--on the street near my
house, there have been trucks with aid sitting there for the past
week, going nowhere, except the warehouse in the compound next door),
or changing the aid agency's name to their own name (also something I
can verify has happened).

In the past week or so, I've heard of many aid trips that have made it
down to the delta areas, so if you heard that none is getting through,
that is absolutely false and exaggerated. However, not enough is
getting through that could due to the restrictions of road blocks and
government requirements, permits, restrictions, etc. Some of the tales
are horrific. The stories of dead carcasses contaminating water
supplies are true, although many townships, especially those closer to
Yangon, this has been remedied. The furthest away, such as in Labutta
township, are much worse off. The trauma of the people returning is
also really severe--enormous stress and guilt, mainly because of being
able to do so little, and losing workers in their agencies. The
problem is still the communication and aid organizing. There's still
no center coordinating it all. Big aid organizations (like the UN,
WFP, Red Cross, etc) only talk to the big aid organizations. NGOs only
talk to the NGOs. Small independent groups just keep on doing their
small independent projects. White plate vehicles are getting through,
as are smaller aid agencies' trips, but some are overloading certain
areas and ignoring others. Every single agency has gone through a
learning period where they just had no idea what they were doing, to
where they are now, acknowledging that they need to speak to each
township to find out the worst affected areas and find out their needs
and talk with other organizations. The monasteries have been amazing.
They are basically a civil order emergency system, and are functioning
as the refugee camps for all the villagers that have no homes. It's
interesting, though, just what the monasteries say about aid. They do
not want to be inundated with it, very wisely saying that they, (the
monasteries) don't really want people to stay there, so just a small
amount of aid is the right initiative--too much they would sell it,
after all. Most townships are saying they have sufficient food and
water (for the moment), but what they really want are building
materials and their livelihoods restored (boats in many communities
were destroyed). The large tank water storage facilities need to be
cleared and refilled, and the rice for this season needs to be planted
immediately (it will be harvested in October).

Interestingly enough, life in Yangon has resumed a semblance of
normalcy. I got electricity back at my house this week, and with it,
access to a water pump to get water as well. Being Yangon, the
electricity is still sporadic, but after none, any is appreciated!!
Ironically, oil rigs kept on pumping, life as usual, all through the
storm. The ports still lack jetties, but the port is clear. Some
poorer areas are still suffering, but businesses have reopened, and
the city is now just a shabbier, uglier version of it's old
ramshackle, dysfunctional self.

Saw a lot of maps today, most produced by the UN agencies. The eye of
the cyclone really did go right through the middle of Yangon!! Because
of it being high tide, and a full moon tide, the destruction in the
delta was due to the tide surge more than the waves, but as far east
as Mawlawmyine and Hpa-an had 1 in 7 trees down. There are some great
poliltical cartoons out there as well. I'll try and find the one that
we all like the best... a very subtle one about a wave that kills

Anyway, must go to sleep now as am headed out early to a relief agency
tomorrow, then to finalize things with my landlady. I'm out of my
house permanently now, so everything is coming together!!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Trader's Hotel Bar

I felt like I had entered a war movie. In all those hot shot, star
journalist, CIA agent, war correspondent, NGO/UN worker movies, they
always have a bar they go to for relaxing and resuming the normal,
albeit usually alcoholic party-animal,
we-live-hard-lives-so-we-need-to-socialise life. This is what Trader's
felt like tonight. Normally it's mostly empty and the clientele are
Chinese businessmen and the odd sad, dirty old man. Tonight it was
hopping and busy, and this time it wasn't just YIEC staff! Sure, the
dirty old men were still there, but this time they had jobs to do that
made them feel super important! The NGO/UN/journalist crowd are all
put up in Trader's hotel (and don't even get me started on the
disgusting logic that's putting all the aid into the most expensive
hotel in town), and it becomes a who's who list at the happy hour (for
us, it's more like looking over a the nearest table and whispering to
seat mates and taking bets, "I wonder who THAT one is...".

I've never felt so ordinary and unimportant (yet shoulder-to-shoulder
with the big guys) in my life. So close and yet so far! In Cambodia,
it happens at the Foreign Press Correspondent's Club, in Beirut, it
must've been one of the clubs or hotels, in Casablanca the entire
movie set is the bar, in Vietnam, no doubt Saigon had a fancy club,
and every crime novel has one. In Blood Diamond the bar was on the
beach, and James Bond always goes to an exotic locale. Ours is a bit
ordinary--certainly no ambiance! It was truly bizzare to have them
mixing in the same place us ordinary teachers hang out in for a Friday
night margarita.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Can't help

Most of the staff from school have left now, and all the business
regarding the end of the year has been concluded, which leaves us free
to volunteer our services to anyone needing assistance. The problem
here, is that many organizations don't want it!! It's not exactly as
cut and dried as that, however. They would love to use us, but
foreigners are a liability in terms of what we can achieve. If we're
buying supplies, we pay higher prices. If we're on a trip, they stop
the bus. If we try to help, it's hard finding meaningful things for us
to do where we won't be arrested or deported. European foreigners are
simply not welcome (Asians are, but more on that later). It's so
frustrating to feel so ineffective. We had a school trip to an
orphanage go out (it was stopped at the checkpoint because of the
foreigners--we negotiated and begged and were finally allowed
through), and that felt like a contribution, but other than that it's
so hard to do meaningful work. The best thing we're good for is our
wallets (and our friends wallets). Raising money is the best way we
can help. The government wants to put their name on all the aid, but
of course aid agencies are all competing to have their name on the
goods. Every group is buying up the soon to be scarce supplies. I've
never seen so much tarp or so many sacks of rice.

One guy I know was working down in the delta and just happened to be
in Yangon when the cyclone hit. He's spent the past week down there,
and while he can't do much, the people say they feel comforted just
knowing that he's there. His agency sent him back to Yangon for a bit
of well-deserved rest. He is wiped out and stressed, and changed for
life. He talked about the stench of the dead bodies (animals and
humans) piled up there, the helplessness he felt, the complete and
utter devastation of the towns down south, where not a building is
left standing and no aid is arriving. His boat drivers did not
survive. Few boats remain because they were destroyed, and no aid is
getting in. In the places closer to Yangon that most people would see
if they got to the delta, things are recovering, just like they are
here, but down there, they really need air lifts of supplies. In one
village, a headman went to the nearest town to get supplies, and when
he returned empty handed, his village decapitated him.

For a brief while, I was confused with being a stellar journalist who
was able to record all this in several amazing photographs and submit
them to agencies and the media, but sadly, I don't really have that
kind of access. It's rumored that cameras will be completely banned in
the delta if ever the aid gets through.

For the last while, the government has been isolating itself further
and further. Europeans are too abrupt and demanding and challenging,
so the government wants them out. They prefer ASEAN countries which
they perceive to better understand them, and be less likely to
challenge them due to the culture of saving face. It is unfair, of
course, but Japanese, Indians, Indonesians, etc that apply for visas
are far more likely to get visas and permits than the likes of us.
Even the new Australian ambassador is rumored to be of Asian
ethnicity. The time for appearing Asian is now.

The long-suffering Myanmar people are getting frustrated. Simple city
mechanisms and facilities have not returned to many areas, and the
government troops presence has completely disappeared. Everyone's
power will only be returned at a price (corruption at it's most
basic), and the scalping, gouging, overpricing and other nastiness is
widespread by all sellers of all commodities. They said change would
happen in September, but it didn't. They say change will happen now.
Who knows if it will? The people are aggravated, but will they be able
to bring change when even an alternative government would be
challenged to solve these problems.

A few people from outside are filtering in on tourist visas.
Journalists, advisors, and other helpers. It's pretty chaotic but
things are happening--even if they're not happening in the places
where they're most needed.

As for me, the volunteer project I was hoping would materialize to
change the course of my life from teaching towards relief work hasn't
materialised. I am feeling at a lost to effect change, so I think I
will probably leave. I am not sure how my shipping will work out, but
I think I'm going to head to Perth after this! So many new things to
work out!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Latest: competition

Things have quieted down here in Yangon as most businesses reopened
today and repairs continue. Debris (mostly fallen trees and stray
branches) still line the streets everywhere, although major roads have
been clear for most of the weekend. The military held up traffic on
Parami Road this week, clearing the debris, but it's puzzling as to
what effect it would have exactly, as there were 4 men on the truck
working and another 50 sitting around on a tea break on the fallen
trees every time I went past!

The big question is about getting aid to the people in the delta. The
NGOs are feeling frustrated with permits tying their hands, and
foreigners being unwelcome on trips out due to conspicuousness.
Apparently the UN has gotten some aid in and is taking many volunteer
workers across the city to deal with the crisis, but not enough is
getting out. Both NGOs and the UN are frustrated by the lack of
communication about aid that has gone out (where to, in what capacity,
what the future needs were). The embassies have sent out aid,
particularly the American Embassy, but it's hard to tell how effective
it was.

The military government are still refusing assistance and aid, but
money in the form of donations is pouring in, to the point where those
of us with cash are running out of currency to leave with
organizations here. Horrible stories of the government exporting the
much needed rice instead of distributing it are not helping! Many are
concerned that Yangon will run out of rice, but others report that
rice is there, but will run out in the next few days. No doubt the media competition from the Chinese earthquake will mean that Myanmar is forgotten once again! Hope not.

Still no idea what's happening with me. Will hope to know in the next few days.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Latest Sunday 11th

Some of my colleages got to go into the delta yesterday. A very poorly
organized American Embassy affiliated van requested a few "white
males", and because they were embassy they were able to get throughthe
many checkpoints that are apparently stopping many other agencies.
More than one person who went was very positive about the situation
saying that the western media had blown it all out of proportion. The
latest 100,000 death toll estimate seemed false, they said, and the
number is more likely closer to the 23,000 government figure. They
viewed each village's manifesto, and while there were many casualties
(one village had 70 out of 1000), things are looking up. They said the
roads all the way had rice drying in many places, and the reason they
had to go so far was because the villages they went through all seemed
prosperous enough with chickens and cows and rice cooking, that it
didn't seem right to give their rice donation to them, and they went
looking for places harder hit. There were many recovering cities in a
similar state to Yangon.

The aid agencies are meeting frequently, and they're very annoyed with
trips like this one, because there were no records taken as to what
they provided each place, and where they actually went, and what the
villages need, so others could arrive with rice to donate, when
instead that particular village could need fresh drinking water. They
hate the independent aid givers, but honestly, it often seems like
they're wrapped up in bureaucracy. This is why the aid communities
frustrate me--so wrapped up in paperwork and permission, and of
course, funding!! Many families of teachers have pledged thousands of
dollars, which will stay within the school's community service club,
but our reach is limited too, especially if we want to keep our visas
for next year.

Anyway, school tomorrow, and it's up in the air what will happen. I'm
trying to have a sale at school for all my stuff, but it won't fit in
a taxi, so has to be left behind to be given away!! So much stuff. I
swear to myself that I will not accumulate as much next time around.
It's better to stay in a small appartment where the stuff doesn't fit
so it's more easily gotten rid of than in a house where every nook and
cranny gets filled!

More news soon, I hope!! I'm trying to post regularly now!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cyclone update 1

May 6, 2008

Aha!!! Success!!! I have made it into email and can send a message
out. I'm at school and our DSL is working, but probably not for long.
My inbox is full as full. I am okay, as the US embassy were supposed
to inform my parents, but it ended up in their junk mail! How's that
for crisis planning? It's been a crazy last few days and I don't know
what's going to happen. Yangon is just devastated... every large tree
in the city--all that beautiful green--is gone. My house is okay
compared to most, but suffered enormous damage. The roof above the
upstairs bathroom was ripped off, and all the windows on the north
side of the house were blown off or had broken windows, so that side
of the house was flooded. We still have no power, no water, no phone,
although apparently water came back today, but it won't change
anything for me because I have no pump!! At least I have three ground
tanks at the back that I can use like a well, filthy water as it is,
but most people have been going and getting it from the lake. Cholera
and typhoid are feared. It's thought it will be reconnected in a few
weeks. There's been widescale rioting and looting, but haven't seen it
myself. All those people in big apartments have generators, but diesel
is running low... it was around $15 a gallon today, and the wait at
the service station for the allotted two gallons was around 5 hours
(snaking lines up the streets). The port's blocked off, so
infrastructure of the city is going to crumble. Drinking water is the
biggest worry at the moment, as is sewage.

The American, Korean, and Thai embassies have all recommended
evacuation, and so our school is probably going to close down, but as
we only have two and a half weeks left, many things are up in the air
(my shipping, for example!!). The kids commenced their AP exams today,
but they're the only ones in school. It'll cost around $2500 per day
per generator to keep the school running, and we have around 1 week of
diesel stockpiled.

Don't know when I'll be able to connect again, as at the high school
it's not working, and we may be evacuated!!

May 7, 2008

Hi there again. Turns out our internet at school is pretty regular,
but in the elementary school only. Hayley and Stu made the front page
of the Dominion Post. Here's the link:
http://www.stuff.co.nz/4514391a10.html Other than that, not much has
changed. The death toll has rocketed upwards, and imagine it will go
higher still. One village was washed away entirely (10,000 people
alone). Managed to watch the BBC yesterday, and it was filmed from
Trader's hotel!! Imagine you saw the same broadcast if you watched it.
I'd send them my pics to them, but it's a big hassle! Many seem to be
getting online already.

The American Embassy is evacuating families and their school has shut
for the year (they've got two days of book returns and goodbyes, and
that'll be it). Same for the other school, who lost the top four
floors of their building (it was a high rise). The British Council are
being evacuated on Friday for Bangkok, but as it's not their end of
year, who knows how long they'll be away. Our school is still making
up their mind. We have school today. I had about 75% of students in my
classes, and all were upbeat and wanted to know about final exams and
the science fair which was supposed to be on Friday!! Report cards and
AP exams are also up in the air. The kids have complained about how
hard they were, but as that would have happened anyway, it's no
surprise!! I imagine we'll either end on Friday or next Friday, but
I'll probably stay and keep my original plans, though haven't bought a
ticket yet so feel very free--if only it wasn't for my stuff!! I'm
still not sure what to do with it all, as the port is closed, so no
shipments will go out. Luckily half was going to be air freighted
anyway, so that'll be okay, but their office is damaged, they have no
boxes, and diesel is very expensive, so pickup could be expensive!!
I'm seriously considering flying out with it all as excess baggage and
dealing with it in Bangkok, but that's a huge hassle as well! It may
be easier just to leave it here care of a friend and then return and
deal with the shipped half next school year!! Who knows?

School suffered very little damage surprisingly. My room didn't even
leak as it normally does in storms. I've also just asked for an
extension to my boring assignment, hopefully the situation is
compelling enough!! :)

Must go back to class, but will send news when I know what, if
anything is happening!!

May 8, 2008
The NZ consul aren't very good and I am not happy at all with the
British Embassy here which has done absolutely nothing!! They did far
more in the last crisis in September. Our school buses are still
running, so am getting to school that way, but did a lot of biking
around in the first few days as taxis were exorbitant. Had an
interesting ride this morning. Ironically, University Avenue is still
closed because of Aung San Suu Kyi's house, so we go down a back alley
(the one where we went to the Christmas party). It was insane. The
traffic there was incredible and so ridiculous considering the huge
main road that is available but not usable! One power pylon had broken
and half fallen over with it's multitude of lines across the road.
Each time a car went over the lines, the whole tower shook and wiggled
alarmingly. We ducked barely under a fallen tree and it amused me
greatly to see us stop briefly so the driver could lift up and throw a
loose power line onto the roof so we could pass under it. Crazy!!

We had our last day of school yesterday (we were told with an hour of
the day left, so it was all a bit hectic!) and so am cleaning up
today... what a hassle!! Hopefully all due payments will come, but I'm
sure they will as school've been really supportive so far. Still no
news on shippers, but at the moment am planning to get out of here
late next week... might go to Aunty Helen's for a while and do the
essay I just got an extension for!! I meant to get some pictures
online today but haven't gotten there with all the interruptions.

Have heard from all sorts of people that normally don't bother to
contact me!! I was on RadioNZ yesterday morning and family and friends
all heard. Apparently you can hear it at
www.radionz.co.nz/morningreport. People here are comparing it to the
Tsunami which it is looking to be more severe than (at least for this
one place). What an enormous tragedy!!

May 10, 2008

Hi there from a luxury appartment!! Am sleeping at a friend's and am
freezing being in airconditioning, but am enjoying
the TV and internet not to mention electricity and running water!
Things not much better at home, but much of the city has improved.
Life moves on here! Have you seen the satellite pictures of the delta?
Aren't they amazing?

Got an email from a relative who works for an NZ aid agency and
they're trying to find volunteers, so am going to try and do that for
a while, but am also of the mind that I want to just be done and get
out. Anyway, am not making any decisions at the moment, and since I
don't actually have any tickets or firm plans, I can take it slow.
Nothing else is figured out. Lots of teachers are trying to help, but
whether or not we can do anything effective is up to debate. Some have
gotten out to the delta and are saying how there's either too much
rice or the rice is contaminated. Most do say the rice in Yangon is
going to run out, but the main concern is still clean water and
sanitation. It's really a question of how effective we can actually
be. They want media spokesmen and then there are lots of journalists,
but how does that actually help the people? This is such an
opportunity to get into aid work and to really make use of being in
the right place and the right time (or the other way around), but we
were beginning our annual break. The idea of a having holiday seems
really frivalous so I'm not
going to make any decisions yet, and since I don't really have any
tickets, I suppose I have that luxury. I have to be in Switzerland for
my new job, but that's the first firm plan I really can't change or
get out of. I'll stay in Europe once I'm there so Belarus will also go
ahead, but other than that, the answer is, I have no idea, but will
let you know as I make plans!

Some people want to volunteer here, but it's doubtful they'll get a
visa at this stage of the game, and to be honest, once you get here
you really have to get permits to get out into the delta, (most going
have ignored it, but that's not really going to last long and is only
going to be detrimental to govt/aid relations in the long run). I'm
curious as to what will happen now that the referendum is
done (no sign of that today, at all, though it went ahead in most
places)! There are hundreds of agencies that have stuff going on.

The last day of school is on Monday, although the kids AP Psychology
test is on Tuesday and I promised them I'd be there at least to have a
last minute review all morning, so I guess that's my last day. The
shipping companies are open now and await my call but the cost will
only go up now! We had our first major storm today and the bathroom
flooded again even though they've "fixed" the roof. The new tenants
moved into the house amid the rain and "flooded" the same room again
with as their dripping things! Watching the
barefoot men using all the chainsaws that have sprung up across the
city is frightening--we have a huge tree still across our power line
at the gate--they really have no idea how to use such things!

Anyway, all this gives you an idea of how hectic things are--end of
school year aside!! Will keep you posted on the happenings.

LATER: So what's the situation then?
Yangon is slowly returning to normalcy, but most places still have no
power/water/phone. Water was first to come back. It is truly eerie
walking the city at night in the pitch blackness--seeing the stars and
hearing the true quiet. To save candles, people are going to bed early
and the whole city sleeps. So many places have not reopened yet, but
hopefully tomorrow that will happen. I really hate to imagine what the
delta is looking like now.

I've heard about so many agencies looking for volunteers simply
because they cannot get foreigners visas to get them into the country.
I feel strange thinking that any foreigner will do in this case... why
can't Burmese do it for themselves. What can I do that they can't? But
still I want to help if I can.

The delta is really badly hit. Several villages lost almost all their
people, and the ones that survived are surrounded by water as all the
land was washed away. Dead bodies (animals and humans) are in the
water and disease is rampant. Food crops were annihilated. The soil is
now salty, and food and clean drinking water are a problem. Please
give money to aid agencies so they can help!