Technoland

Often with traveling or living abroad a seemingly mundane experience can turn out to be something of great intrigue. I went to acquire a printer which by any measure fits the definition of “mundane” and further falls under the category of “necessary evil”. Like going to the dentist. My experience shows that Printer companies told their engineers to assume the mantra of Henry Ford who reportedly said “I will give you the car if you contract the parts through me” Replace that distributor with a thimble sized ink cartridge needing replacement and you have a financial winner. We found a particular model online boasting a larger ink reservoir said deliver printed pages in the thousands. Done deal!

We hailed a taxi and experienced yet another  bumpy and congested ride that delivered us to our downtown Yangon destination. It is called “Technoland” and best described as the Myanmar baby-brother version of Best Buy with that noxious overwhelm of the big box store. Technoland is located on a street full of other technology based businesses with wares ranging from computers to phones to audio systems. (The Burmese love to play music and speeches very loud.) Yangon likes to keep similar industries located together on the same street or neighborhood. I know not if all plumbing supplies on one lane stems from a military command-economy of the past or simply emblematic of SE Asian culture but it is nice if your looking for piping, electrical, whatever. Just how it is.

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36th Street downtown Yangon

After making a purchase we had to wait for the salespeople to unpack the device, plug it in and complete a test print. These things always take several people to complete and our salesman was insistent. Perhaps to many times they have been burned by Chinese knock-off that failed to deliver on the faux brand name stamped on the device. (Makes you wonder if that Johnny Walker Red for $20 at the liquor store is really Johnny Walker and not a repackaged Chairman Mao simple grain whiskey.) Technoland’s proving it was real  process was going to take 20 minutes which by international standards is time for a cup of coffee.

We stepped out the front door to locate a local tea shop and scanned up and down the street to see only electronic gadgetry. Lo and behold just across from us was Moe Coffee Shop. Interesting name. I don’t know if they forgot the possessive apostrophe-“s”, misspelled “more” or named it after one of the Stooges. Legitimate options. We ambled over with aromatic anticipation only to be shocked and bemused by polka music booming from loud speakers in each of the corners. The oompahs’ immediately conjured images of  stout madchens fisting eight steins of lager and tables of lederhosed’ Germans performing the chicken dance. Not typical Yangon music nor imagery but it worked. Some credit to Moe Coffee house for this irregular sound because do boast a music theme. Photos of Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and more decorate each of the walls. There was no jailhouse rock.

A quick search of TripAdvisor surfaced nothing as Moe’s is not a member of this tourist app. Isn’t everything rated on TripAdvisor? The eventual upward glance up from my screen presented yet more intrigue in the form of a high-end stereo system complete with Bose speakers in each corner and a stack of amplifiers to provide the juice. Behind the counter was an older man easily in his 70’s operating it all with racks of CD’s on shelving behind. I think that was his only job. Surely all electronics were purchased within a stones throw of the front door. As I marveled at Bavarian rhythms my disappearing Americano gave way to a funky Latin beat and eventuality of Ritchie Valens. That matched my caffeine buzz. Myanmar, Burmese culture, Polka, La Bomba. Beautiful.

So I found a new spot in downtown that is unique and off the beaten path. Nothing special about the coffee but an elder DJ and jukebox possibility of Johnny Cash is enough of a draw.

 

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Phnom Penh

 

Teaching here in Myanmar offers a slightly better benefit in the form of holidays than in America. The school calendar is similar to the U.S. In number of days but is interspersed with more holidays and subsequent respite from the classroom. They often Make for four-day weekends. The last of these weekends landed us in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where history and cultural intrigue were its lure. Siem Reap was a destination two years back with a visit to the Angkor Wat complex, which still escapes a description. This was a trip to their big city.

Phnom Penh is that typical SE asian city abuzz with a tangle of traffic that would send most westerners scurrying for safety. This anarchy of cars, motorbikes, Tuk Tuk’s and pedestrians can make one wonder as to what purpose any painted lanes or turn signals even have. Yangon has much Similar vehicular discord but  disallows motorbikes thus making this Vespa world something to get used to. But for Phnom Penh, it works. Public bussing has yet to be resurrected after it was killed off  under the Khmer Rouge In the mid 70’s and likely adds to congestion woes. Rail transport, too.

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Intersection in Phnom Penh

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Phnom Penh has a history museum, royal palace and foreign correspondents club that we visited. The latter, where journalists would meet in the heyday of the Vietnam war, is a great place to imbibe some local draft and Imagine what colonial life was like. Historical photographs on the wall depicting the French impact and old city provide gives the mind direction. Spread around are local markets that add color to the gray of cement and pavement. Turning the corner on a city walk offers up to a world of foods with venders swatting away insects from meat and poultry, and an array of motorbikes under repair.

 

 

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Local Market

Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Cambodians  have a character that is warm and inviting. According to one talkative Tuk Tuk driver the Cambodians, however, do combine their Buddhist belief with a bit of Hinduism. The museum had lots of sculptures of Buddha and Shiva from the same time periods. And it does seem  diffferent than Theravada Buddhism practiced in Myanmar. As implied, the locals here are nicer than imaginable which begs to reason as to how something like the Khmer Rouge genocide could befall a place like this. Phnom Penh today is a million shy of its 1975 self when the horror ensuing under Pol Pot led to the loss of nearly one of every four Cambodians. Over two million were marched from the city to the countryside to become farmers. Nixon’s secret bombing campaign here is another conversation alltogehter. Unexploded ordinance still wreaks havoc and children today have to be taught how to identify these dangers in the countryside.

With closer look you can see that Phnom Penh is still working to reestablish infrastructure that is taken for granted in most other places. The loss of a professional class left the country bereft of those knowledgeable about governing, teaching, policing, anything. No doctors to treat the sick, Attorneys  to mitigate concerns or engineers to design and build. Now Cambodia boasts of several universities which have been rebuilt in the past four decades, so they are moving forward.

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S21 – High School turned prison and torture center

 

The Tuol Sleng genocide museum was a high school converted into a torture prison by the Khmer Rouge. Thousands suffered through with just a mere handful surviving.  The “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an  enemy by mistake” said by Pol Pot contradicts many western ideals but does demonstrate some thinking that could lead to such an atrocity. The resulting groupthink and sociopathy are reminders of the empathy and compassion so needed in today’s political climate. Still there is much cognitive dissonance with the character of Cambodians and this sordid past.

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Old colonial building

 

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Sculptures at the Royal Palace

Market

 

Each day I arrive at school at 7:30 AM, sometimes sooner. My room is 204b which puts me on the second floor in the one of the older buildings with an outside walkway. I climb stairways leading up to my classroom door that faces out over that open-air walkway. The view is of an apartment across the street that gives no relent to the poverty glaring back. A blue corrugated roof stretches out from beneath a railing and doubles as a steel drum with a cacophonous rhythm when it rains. When I reach my classroom I catch a glimpse of a market just below in street. Just a fractional view but I can tell by those bustling about that there is more to be had around the corner. Some teachers frequent the market and return with fruit or vegetables but I have yet to explore its opportunity.

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View from walkway outside of classroom

I went down to the market one day before before any class commenced and the street revealed extensible more. The Burmese were getting about with their day, selecting their wares to an occasional shunting of a train passing by on the circle line. The engineers always seem to wait until classes begin before they start blaring horns for notice. I draw much attention in the market because I am western and represent the private school next door, the class difference. My six-foot five inch frame Everest’s above them all adding to the attention I get.  But that is no matter.  I am always greeted here with smiles that are not what is called “pan-am” but instead a genuine, ear-to-ear eye-wrinkling smile that just cannot be counterfeited.

Identifying much of what is sold at the market is easy, especially the flip flops and articles of clothing. But some foodstuffs unique to Southeast Asia escape labeling and work the imagination to wonder and categorize. Often we eat without a clue as to what spice or ingredient garnishes. Fish and meat are elementary.

 

 

By the early afternoon the market disappears like it was never there.  All the venders pack away everything into spaces just inside the buildings behind their station. Spaces where they live. Adding to this are all fresh vegetables, fruit, poultry, etc., that is fresh. It all has to be either delivered or picked up by locals early each morning long before the day brightens. Early when many would consider woken a type of assault. I think they do this nearly every day. The river is nearby.

There is a new  spot I notice just outside my blue roof. It is a pile of clothing put out in a spot on the street and it comes and goes with a different cadence. It is a heap of garments that extends for about meters and has neighborhood shoppers pawing through for anything useful. They hold up articles to check size and seem to mull over color schemes. It is like a Good Will store and I wonder if that is where the people from the shanty get some of the clothing. And where does it come from?

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Shanty near school

Christmas Ubiquity

When something exclusively western happens Yangon that antithetical to traditional Burmese culture, it draws some attention. An example is the annual Oktoberfest put on by the German Consulate and BMW.  The sponsors make it authentic with chefs brought in from Munich to cook bratwursts and make sauerkraut, and a Munich band flown in so all can chicken dance. Burmese women, however, lack that Bavarian Braun to  carrying several one-liter steins of lager, but they gave it their best. String puppets are more the tradition here.

Today I experienced another one of theses paradoxes. I strolled into a local shopping at a mart to pick up necessities. It was not a local street market but a grocery store located inside a moderately sized mall. Nice one, too. The Groceries section is centered in a mall with some fairly high end jewelers and clothiers and even sports one of the two Pizza Hut restaurants located here. A long shopping meant some time negotiating all the isles and landing appropriate items. Adding to this is the shopping gene I have. The one I share with most other men that effects the frontal lobe and forces us to aimlessly roam down the isle. A burden we accept and live with.

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Down the isle of the market

I frolicked down the isles I wondering why I was so cheerful. I was shopping after all, hunting for food in the 21st century. Then it dawned on me.I was looking at Christmas decorations decorations hanging from the ceiling and serenaded by Burl Ives from the loudspeaker dangling above. Rudolph always conjures up visions of Yukon Cornelius, that mean Santa, toothless abominable and Norelco electric-shaver sledding during commercial. I was caroled the whole shopping trip.

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Douglas Fir or Spruce?

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It will fit atop the car!

But here they are not Christian and seem to only have a cursory understanding of its tenets. Sure there a few are, but even my students inform me that nobody they know really celebrates Christmas and none of them have even seen snow except in a picture.There are some churches around in downtown Yangon but the dominant philosophy and belief. Locals instead favor Chinese new year better because they get so much cash. Most everyone in the  store is likely a Theravada Buddhist. No secret Santa. I wondered if they know who Darius Rucker is and what a winter wonderland looks like? Or the melody of jingle bells that follows the lyrics of which they don’t understand. And how about the Grinch? He is odd in America so figure out that song here. I did have some ideas from the music, though. I say combine some Burmese traditional foods with western holiday grog and creating a dish that scream Myanmar.

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Grinch Holiday feet, fried of course

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Whoville xmas balls

There is more, too. I could have purchased a small fake tree for 3,500 ky, which is about $4, but I would have had to lug it home and figure out decorations and lights. Maybe next year. I did run into another westerner and we stared at each other in an unusual way. Usually an acknowledgement nod or smile is all, but this was different. He was from the Netherlands and asked why American Christmas music was being played when obviously no one inside the store cared. I had no response other than to offer a sign of confusion and think that Donald Trump would be pleased to see he was winning this battle in “The War on Christmas” here in South East Asia. So can Yangon get some mall-Santa reinforcements?

The full-moon-holiday has been in full swing outside the apartment with chanting monks and responding Buddhists filling the night air. It is quite loud and likely would violate many sound ordinances in the states. But hear it is just what they do here.

 

 

 

Project Habitat

Students here in Myanmar exhibit a great deal of generosity and benevolence that speak to philosophy, or religious beliefs. It is visible everyday. Each Friday afternoon at ISM high school we end the week with an assembly celebrating student achievement, give performances, student-council leadership or whatever they have planned to accomplish. It is quite the  positive end to a full week of teaching and learning and is really nothing really like many American high school assemblies where school spirit is shown by rooting on the team’s big game on Friday night complete with the rally squad kicking out a cheer and twisting about with pompoms.

On a recent Friday at ISM there was a presentation by students from one of our community service programs titled “Project Habitat”. Community service is a student requirement where students do service-learning to help the elderly, local public schools, orphanages, and with Project Habitat, improve the living conditions of those living near the school that are less fortunate. The focus of the presentation today was improving life in the slum on the other side of the wall of the high school building.  Typically ISM students come from well-to-do families that can affording school tuition, tutoring on weekends and drivers to get them to and from school. Some good fortune at birth with educations at western universities for most.

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Sign at school put up by students.

 

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Myanmar 2.0

 

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It’s Myanmar time!

We have returned to teach in Myanmar after a year of adjustment back in the U.S. Our abrupt departure from Yangon in 2016 made for an incomplete overseas experience and, after much searching, we ended up returning to the International School of Myanmar and our old apartment in the city of Yangon. Getting around in our old digs and remembering just where everything was took no time at all. But not without  some observation changes we notice since we left.

Smiles still greet whenever we are about. And I know it is not entirely due to my monstrous proportions compared to the Burmese. So many western amenities are lacking and yet the locals still seem at ease. It is just that there exists a genuine sense of happiness and content that is hard to put a finger on. This does not ignore problems occurring here in other parts of the country  but that conversation deserves a different venue.

Infrastructure is the first item on the list of something that has changed, albeit at a slow pace. Lots of buildings being erected and I have seen and heard as many ambulances in the past few days as I had in the entire year before. There could have been a spate of accidents, but not likely, and it does not explain the shiny new emergency vehicles that doppler by with that hee-haw bellow so commonly heard in Europe.  And in speaking of vehicles, there are some new lines painted on the road that give turn directions from specific lanes. New traffic lights that countdowns how long from red to green, or green to red. No yellows though. Baby steps.

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Returning to our original apartment put us right back into the driver’s seat of Myanmar, excepting that most cars here come from Japan with right side steering wheels and right lane traffic. Makes for some interesting on-offs with buses as passengers exit into traffic and not to the curb. That, however, is with the older ones and I have noticed a new line of coaches sporting a big YBS on the front and back which are owned by the city and no longer private. One step at a time I say.

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New Yangon Bus!

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New power poles

Apartment building friends did well to provide vittles to get us by upon arrival, along with other essential items. Bug zappers, umbrellas and extra plastic containers for our cook. The first “vittel” we tried was a little bag of treats coated with a cheesey topping that we appeared to be some kind of baked rice or tiny chip. These were cheeto-dusted for flavor, but not in the finger staining way we are so used to. Call it cheeto-lite. These little morsels, upon closer inspection, gave rise identifiable form of an insect, family Gryllidae for those entomologists.  The antennae and legs had been seared off in the frying process leaving a seared torso to nibble upon. They were crickets which are  popular street food in Myanmar. And I do say they tasted better than ones I had before because that cheesey coating gave them a bit more flavor. When in Rome!

Small Crispy Crickets. Cheese Flavor!

Crickets were not the only snacks left by our friends as they left some chips, too. And everyone loves chips! These were not your usual ones, though, like something  that can get dipped into salsa or creamy ranch dressing. As a matter of fact their exists no condiment that could have saved them. These “chips” were a container of baked squid. And I like squid! Distant memories of eating calamari at Alexis greek restaurant in downtown Portland came to mind. Opening the container should have been my first warning as an alarming fish odor permeated the apartment. But these were baked so how bad could they be?  So being the good sport I sampled a squid chip and crunched down with an expectation of something new and exciting. Quickly I realized a whale had beached itself in my mouth and I desperately needed to remove the carcass. This assault rivaled the time when I was a five-year old and drank an ounce of turpentine from oldest brothers model set. At least with the paint thinner I could dowse the flame with copious amounts of water direct from the faucet. Baked squid was different. The chip left an impervious coating of a dead sea creature on my tongue for what seemed like time eternal. Gargling Listerine, drinking water, toothbrushing,  sandblasting, were impervious to this tentacled embrace. Thank you my friends for leaving us this welcome back.

Things smell bad to us for a reason.

The chips looked so appetizing!

 

Myanmar Heat

The  climate here  in Myanmar is mostly twofold. It goes from the rainy season from May to October and then to hot and dry from March to May. November through February are delightfully pleasant .  The rain and winter mild have given way to a punishing heat that is a definite adjustment to daily activity . It opiates locals laggard as they seek the nearest spot of shade or raise a parasol to stave off the sun’s darting rays. Others have to manage a spring perspiration that more than dampens the collar.

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Mother and daughter on the road.

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