Month 2 in Myanmar

Time is passing quickly, this post is a few weeks overdue! Here are some things that have filled my time.

My final week in Yangon

On my last Friday, I went out on the town, first for some roller coasters. People’s Park is the 3rd ride park I’ve been to that was developed by a socialist/communist dictatorship government (the first were in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan). Maybe this is an experience I need to collect, like I collect haircuts and salons when I travel. I went with Erica, a new friend I met in my Myanmar language class. The rides look so simple and stupid, and then you get on and THEY ARE SO SCARY but also make you giggle too. After sunset we also enjoyed fantastic views of Shwedagon.

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[Rollercoaster!]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[Sunset at People’s Park]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[Shwedagon by night]

Later we joined Ivan, also from Myanmar class, at Seven Joint. A Jamaican bar, in Myanmar, with live music featuring the songs of Train, Pharell, and Bryan Adams. Let’s just say it was trippy.

I also went on a free walking tour of downtown Yangon, explored a few other areas of the city, and finally visited Shwedagon, possibly the main site to see in Yangon, and for good reason. Stunning. Peaceful. And free, fast wifi.

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[Prettiest old building in downtown Yangon]

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[Exploring neighbourhoods of Yangon]

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[Waiting for the local train]

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[Shwedagon]

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[Shwedagon]

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[Shwedagon]

Moving to Mawlamyine

This was the town I expected to be living in all along, but it made sense for me to spend my first bit of time in Yangon. Mawlamyine is the 4th largest city in Myanmar, but really it’s just a big town. No high rises, few apartment buildings. Lots of homes over stores, old houses. Interesting colonial architecture tucked in narrow alleys. A river front. Pagodas. MOTORCYCLES (there are none in most of Yangon…they are illegal on the road) and therefore fewer cars, which I love. Only a few traffic lights (I think I’ve seen 2). So much quieter.

I live with a roommate (another Cuso volunteer from Edmonton, placed with a different organization) in a two bedroom, one story small house in a little village outside of town, near the university. Think dirt roads, dogs, goats, the odd cow, burning piles of leaves, small market, university students living together and singing karaoke.

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[The house]

We’re slowly setting up house, figuring out our routines. Our water comes from a well on our lot, and all fixtures are gravity fed. We shower by pouring water from a small bucket over our heads. I usually treat myself and boil a bit of water to add to the large bucket, just to take a bit of the cold edge off. Lots of mosquitos, even with screens. About 8 different tile patterns used throughout the house on different floors and walls makes for visual interest. Very variable power supply (power goes off from 5 min to 36 hours at a time, the voltage changing dramatically over time) which makes for interesting fan air flow.

Still going to work

Still doing the same sort of work (though now I’m beginning to do more hands-on work –  training community researchers and collecting data through interviews and focus group discussions). However, my days look much different. Let’s compare the two.

Yangon: 30min-1hr commute in heavy traffic on a 6 lane roadway by bus. Office with about 15 staff on the 3rd floor of an office building. Neat little neighbourhood on the way. A few other foreigners at the office. A great restaurant where I can get yummy veggie dishes with rice if I didn’t bring a lunch.

Leaving the house in Yangon
[Waiting for the bus]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[My favourite corner on the walk to work]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[Shared lunch]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[View from the stairwell]

Mawlamyine: <5min walk to work on mostly dirt roads. Office with 3 staff and 1-2 local volunteers. Office in an old house with beautiful wood floors and roof beams. No other foreigners at the office. Lunch options are fewer, but still yummy.

In addition to computer based work, I’ve also spent a bit more time in Mawlamyine helping my colleagues practice English, learn research methods, and have had a few meetings that really highlight the difference between civil society in big city Yangon, and civil society in more rural Myanmar.

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[Walking to work]

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[Walking to work]

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[Our new office space on moving day (old office had flood problems)]

Connecting with the expat community in Mawlamyine

There seem to be about 20 foreigners living here, and I’ve met almost all of them. We have a Viber group (Viber is kind of like WhatsApp or Skype, a messaging/call app) to arrange plans, and we usually get together every Friday. It’s a very mixed group, with people from the US, UK, France, Switzerland, Japan, and more that I’m forgetting. Other times people based in Yangon come down for a few days of work and I’ve met a few of them as well. They’ve been very helpful in helping me learn about Mawlamyine (i.e. where to buy flour, cooking sauces, pasta, and other hard-to-find goods).

Celebrating the full moon in October AKA the Festival of Lights

On this holiday, people light candles in the evening (and line them up on their door steps, windows, fences, etc) and during the day time they take day trips. Amanda’s host organization invited us for a day tour, and about 8 of us spent the day visiting some of their friends, going to a temple on the ocean, visiting the busiest beach I’ve ever been on in my lifetime, checking out the Death Railway cemetery (appoximately 4000 Allied POWs died during the Japanese-led construction of this railway in southeast Asia. I’ve been to the other end, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand), and getting rained off the road.

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[A friend’s home]

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[Kyaikkami pagoda]

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[Kyaikkami pagoda]

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[Kyaikkami pagoda]

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[Kyaikkami pagoda]

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[Kyaikkami pagoda]

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[Setse beach]

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[Thambuziyat cemetary]

Later in the evening I checked out one of the temples back in Mawlamyine and admired everything by candle light.

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[Kyaikthanlan pagoda]

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[Kyaikthanlan pagoda]

Election!

Watching the election process unfold here has been fascinating. I’ve written a post comparing the election here with the election in Canada, and I’ll share it soon so you can get more insight than what western media is sharing.

Have you every considered visiting Myanmar/Burma?

12 things I’m thankful for in Myanmar

Big bottles of purified water

One of the scourges of international travellers everywhere is the plastic water bottle. Many people here (foreigners and locals alike) get refillable 20L dispensers delivered. Once you have the dispenser, they’re cheap to refill (50c in Yangon, 30c in Mawlamyine), and they not only deliver to your house, they bring them right to your kitchen.

Well-connected colleagues

When it comes to development work in Myanmar, it’s a small world. If I need a connection, someone likely has it. Most of the Myanmar staff have worked at other NGOs, and international folk are connected to the INGO Forum. Down in Mawlamyine I can count the foreigners on my fingers and toes, and my colleagues are connected to different CSO networks. It’s a small world.

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[A gathering of new expat friends]

My friendly neighbourhood restaurant

Yangon: If I’m tired and hungry, I come here because I know I’ll get a good bowl of mohinga (a noodle soup with a fish broth plus some oversized celery-looking vegetable and bonuses of your choice). I get a hard boiled egg and a fried bean curd patty cut up into it. Other options are fish chunks or cut up chicken sausage. As you can see I’m not eating totally vegan here, as is often the case when I travel.

Mawlamyine: There are a few ones I frequent when I go to the market Saturday morning or during the week for lunch. If I can convince my colleagues to go to Victoria (or Witoyiya) restaurant I’m especially happy, but it take a motorcycle ride to get there. Victoria has lots of veggie options, including baked beans (beans!!). Last week I treated two of my colleagues – 8 different dishes, plus rice, and drinks was under $3. Total.

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[Not my neighbourhood restaurant, but an example of a group lunch spread]

Friendly people

Thanks to lovely colleagues and connections, I’ve been able to experiences little parts of Myanmar I would never get to as a tourist. The random massage place with the blind masseuse. The mountaintop festival. The homemade dinners. Wonderful.

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[With Mi Kun and friends on Bilugyn Island]

Fans

Yangon: In the living room, in my bed room, ventilating the bathroom and kitchen, and beside my office desk. When there’s no other way to get cool and move air around.

Mawlamyine: Not enough fans, but I damn sure appreciate what I have.

Peanut cakes

I don’t know what else to call them. The cost 2/30c or 4/50c. The first time I bought them I talked myself up into thinking they were going to taste savoury so that I wouldn’t be disappointed if they were.

But they were just slightly sweet! Like peanut butter cookies in pancake form.
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found peanut cakes in Malamyine. There isn’t the same level of street food culture. My eyes are on the lookout for other fried treats though.

Bad internet connections

Truly. I’m someone that can easily get sucked into the rabbit hole of the internet, or who can get in the habit of checking various feeds over and over in a cycle. Especially if I don’t have something concrete I have to do (or sometime especially when I do).

Here, I’ve detoxed. I have a very slow connection at work (<50kb/second) and only have data on my phone otherwise (though it’s faster than my work connection). Mobile data is cheap (about $2.50 for 500MB of data) but sometime there isn’t a data hot spot, or something on my phone auto syncs on something unexpected and I blast through my limit. Anyways, I’d rather spend my time and my volunteer stipend on other stuff.

However, this means I’ve been really bad about sharing what I’m up to, and especially bad about sharing photos.

One aside on the topic of internet connections. Imagine if you can a country 5 years ago, cut off, without internet for most except the richest few, and a state controlled media with rampant censorship. SIM cards cost $5000. Fast forward five years and SIM cards are less than $2, mobile is cheap, smartphones can be had for cheap too, and independent media no longer have to get government approval before they publish. All in five years. It’s crazy. From zero to smartphone nation.

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[Free (and fast!) wifi upon Shwedagon, Yangon]

Google maps + iPhone

Tip: before you travel to an international destination, get on your phone and zoom all around where you plan to go. When you’re in the new country, even if you don’t use wifi or data (i.e. you have no connection whatsoever), GPS will pinpoint your location and help you find where you are/where you’re going.

Living near bus routes

It’s something I love about where I live in Vancouver too.

Yangon: Depending on how much I feel like walking, I can take the 48, 50, 51, 124, 132, 176, 188, 231, I think. And probably more that I don’t know about.

Mawlamyine: The little bus truck #5 gets me downtown. Here I can walk to work, and take a motorcycle taxi if needed. I carry my motorcycle helmet with me most places, because you never know when you’re going to end up on a motorcycle.

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[The number 5 “Bus Kaa”]

Coca Cola

I drink it when I travel. It soothes my stomach. It makes greasy or spicy food go down easier. It’s an after work treat. It’s available everywhere when you need it.

Mawlamyine: I also found Snickers here! I associate Snickers with a soothed stomach, after my issues in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. I need to find more sources for Snickers though, my roommate and I bought the store out.

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[Bought out the store. On the lookout for more.]

Medical insurance (thanks Cuso International!)

Being able to get my stomach problems and my torn elbows taken care of without financial worries makes the decision to take care of myself easier. (PS I’m all better now).

A full night’s sleep

My first month in Myanmar, I don’t think I ever got more than 3 hours uninterrupted sleep (I know I don’t have anything on new parents/breastfeeding mamas, but still). And then something broke after I got over my cold, and one Friday, I slept for 9 hours. And then again Saturday night. And then 7 on Sunday night. It’s like I was different person. I think it was a cooler few days that did it, because when it got warm again I slept poorly again.

In Mawlamyine things have been OK so far, even with the heat and the mosquito nets. I’m cautiously optimistic, especially as the weather is supposed to cool down a bit soon (from highs of 36 to highs of 30 or even under!)

What makes living away from home easier for you?

On my way to Myanmar/Burma

Myanmar tickets

I’m heading to Myanmar (Burma) for six months. Literally on my way now (writing this from the Vancouver airport).

Out of the blue you say? Yeah, for me too. There was less than 4 weeks between accepting the offer from Cuso International and leaving the country. In the middle I’ve rented my condo, got vaccinations and the variety of health/police checks, got my foster cat adopted, spent 5 days in training in Ottawa with Cuso, visited family, and wrapped up a few non-travel things. It’s been a whirlwind.

What am I doing in Myanmar?

Doing what I do in Canada, but in a new context. While I don’t know the specifics, my volunteer role title is “Stakeholder Mapping Consultant”. I’ll be working with Local Resource Centre,a central umbrella/capacity building/hub organization to the nonprofit sector—aka civil society in Myanmar—in their new Mawlamyine office.

I’ll be researching what is going on in civil society in Mon state, the “landscape” – who’s doing what, with who, for who, to what ends, with what resources, with what skills, and with what challenges. And going from there. Or so I understand at the moment. It’s possible that my work may change once I’m there, but I’m sure it will stay in the general realm of “nonprofit sector capacity building.”

I’ll blend my skills for listening, asking good questions, facilitating, researching, and strategizing, to learn about civil society in Mon state and give that learning back to the sector.

Want to contribute to Cuso International’s work (and get good vibes and a tax receipt)? I’m trying to raise $500 before my birthday on September 9th. Donate here!

What will I continue while away?

I’ll continue my outreach re: a data strategy for BC’s nonprofit sector. It can take time for money and other assets to come together, so I’ll stay in touch with a variety of stakeholders and collaborators.

Quiet changemaker project. This will be my downtime/alone time hobby. Writing. Agent/publisher pitches.

My research agenda aka manifesto—emergent trends that I feel the nonprofit sector needs to act on. I want to increase my focus on these areas in a research and strategy capacity upon my return, so I’ll continue to network with allies and share my thinking as time allows (like I am doing with the data strategy). I’ll share this research agenda in a future post.

Staying connected. Depending on internet access, I’d like to have at least one Skype chat a week with an interesting person in order to stay connected, stay inspired, and stay informed.

What am I putting on hold?

I’m not taking on any new contracts while I’m away, but am happy to have exploratory conversations about future contracts. I’ll be back in Canada for the end of the fiscal year for Canadian government and many other clients, so I’ll be ready to jump into contract work and consulting upon my return.

Do Good Better Podcast. I hope to release the remaining interviews I’ve already conducted, but unless it fits with my work objectives in Myanmar, I won’t be spending time on it while away.

Wish me luck and health! Stay in touch—it’s a connected world, even in Myanmar.

PS. Will you donate to Cuso? It’ll take you about 5 minutes online, and you will get my gratitude and a charitable tax receipt (or my non-Canadian friends, you’ll get just get my gratitude)!