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.


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.


Douglas Fir or Spruce?


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.


Grinch Holiday feet, fried of course


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.


Sign at school put up by students.


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Myanmar 2.0



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.


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.


New Yangon Bus!


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.


Mother and daughter on the road.

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Paradise in Myanmar

Everyone loves a beautiful and tropical beach. Who doesn’t? I speak of the beaches with endless white sand, palm trees, warm water to swim in and every excuse to never leave. I have had pleasure to visit in Hawaii, Florida, Nice, Southern  California and have experienced this sand and water, along with the tourist congregation.  Often these travelers mark territory with their towels and chairs in a patchwork pattern of daily ownership.  Discovering these paradises sans people would certainly be the goal of many and is a delight when it happens. Look no further for Ngwe Saung beach in Myanmar is just that place.


Lover’s Island

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Hanoi, Vietnam

Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s left me with  a western bias toward Vietnam. The 10-year war against the North Vietnamese was a failure but my generation was told that even though those  godless communists may have won the day they still took a giant step backward in the progress of mankind. A Soviet-style communist rule is what Vietnam was supposed to be. In brief visit to Hanoi, however, I found a modern city abuzz with activity, shops and motorbikes. Could not find that hammer and sickle anywhere, and never had a sense of being watched other than the local Viet gawking at tall Americans.


Motorbikes handed out like candy

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Ha Long Bay

I remember once being at the Grand Canyon with a good friend who described the view as “a painting that you could reach out and touch”.  An apt description, I thought, since words and pictures fail to capture its majesty. Ha Long Bay in Northern Vietnam holds this  power as words and photos fail to accurately convey this marvel.


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