a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Exploring our new city

We are in Yangon.

After nearly 48 hours of travel time,

toting 7 pieces of luggage all weighing slightly more than the allowed 50lbs, we made it to the Winner Inn in Yangon, Myanmar. No lost luggage, no mishaps at customs, and a driver was waiting at the airport for us holding a sign with our names on it. All went smoothly.

As I begin writing this post, Stephen is heading to his first day at work. A driver from HelpAge will pick him up. He is understandably a little nervous, so many unknowns, so much to learn. But he is also eager to begin.

I think we already like our new city. Yesterday we took a 4.5 mile walk from our hotel to Inya Lake and back. I took photos along the way. On our way to dinner the previous night I noticed some gorgeous flowers and I made note to get photos of them in the morning.

There are so many beautiful tropical flowers. I can't wait to paint them.

Things seemed to have improved dramatically from 3 years ago when I was in Yangon with Stephen on a business trip. In 2012 the cars were old and rickety and the buses were worse. Today there are all kinds of brand new cars on the road.

I also remember trying to smile at people I passed on the street and getting nothing in response. That is not at all the case now. Practically everyone I try to smile at will immediately flash me a beautiful smile in return. And one young man said, "Where are you from?" He seemed just eager to engage with us and give us information about places to see in his city.

Inya Lake was so pleasant. Such a large peaceful green space was an unexpected surprise. Another pleasant surprise was the miles of unbroken sidewalks clearly designated for pedestrians. We still had to watch for holes.

But nothing like so many other places we've been.

It was Sunday but it seems like just another work day here. The construction behind our hotel started at about 7am. And as we walked to the lake we saw a crew pouring cement for new sidewalks and/or parking along the road.

By the time we walked back by,  they had nearly finished.

We stopped for coffee, for a break from the heat, and I had an iced strawberry coffee.

Stephen ordered a frappuccino but received a cappuccino with chocolate. :) (I always point at the menu when I order to try to reduce the chances of being misunderstood.)

We paid with Kyats (pronounced chats) the currency for Myanmar.

1000 Kyats roughly equals US$1. Our bill was 3660. So we should have received 40 in change but 50 Kyats is the smallest bill. There are no coins. It seems like a big difference to me to get 50 instead of 40. But 50 Kyats is the equivalent of 5 cents.

After leaving the coffee shop we had to cross 4 lanes of pretty fast traffic. We crossed to the middle first then waited. As we were crossing the last two lanes we had to run as the white car in the far right lane was not slowing down in the least. We understand that cars have the right of way everywhere here, but still I always wonder what drivers think when they are speeding toward people in the road.

For lunch Stephen wanted to go to Happy Cafe, a restaurant he had eaten at on his first trip to Myanmar in January 2012. We had our choice of eating indoors with air conditioning or outdoors where there were fans. I opted for outdoors and said, "The fan is nice." Immediately our waiter turned the fan directly on our table. We were given menus with photos for every dish and drink they offered. Everything really looked delicious. Stephen is a pretty happy camper, "Asian food every day!" I ordered a "chicken salad".

It was loaded with tiny chopped green chiles so it was quite spicy but the flavors were fantastic. Stephen ordered "green rice" that came in the shape of a pagoda.

Special presentation is so characteristic of Asian people.

As we sat enjoying our lunch, I noticed that the numbers on the fan kept going up. I first noticed 29. Then it said 30 and then 31. Celsius. The temperature in the shaded restaurant went from 84 to 88 degrees fahrenheit over the course of the meal. From the restaurant we had about 1.5 miles left to walk back to our hotel. I needed to stop for breaks in the shade and during one of these breaks I just happened to see the whip of a tail. We looked closer and saw this bright teal lizard on the tree.

He was so colorful. Stephen looked it up and it was a Indo-Chinese forest lizard. When we got back to the hotel Stephen checked the temperature. It was 36 C or 97 F. But unlike Cambodia the humidity was low at only 41%. So that's something. :)

We are still not quite on local time; this morning we were awake at 4am. It's nice to be up early in the tropics to enjoy the coolest part of the day. But by 3pm were are ready for sleep. We are 13 1/2 hours ahead of Washington state (PST) and 12 1/2 hours ahead of Montana (MST). Changing time zones is only one of the many adjustments we will need to make. :)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Myanmar (Burma) our next adventure

Stephen and I thrilled to announce that he has accepted a position as Health Project Manager in a 2-year contract with HelpAge International to work on one of their new projects in Myanmar (Burma). Though we were open to a number of locations in the world, Southeast Asia ranked high on our favored list. Our time in Cambodia gave us opportunities to experience a number of Southeast Asian and East Asian countries. Over those 2 1/2 years, we discovered so many wonderful aspects of life and culture that we loved, and we hoped to one day spend more time in the region. Now in only 20 days we will be on a plane bound for Myanmar!

The HelpAge hiring committee really liked Stephen right away. Only a few days after his first phone interview with them, they flew him out to Yangon for a face-to-face interview. The in-person interview confirmed the content of his CV and impressed them further. They offered him the job on the spot! This project has two main objectives. 1) Strengthen the capacity of the University of Public Health to respond to Myanmar's disease transition from infectious diseases to non-communicable (non-infectious) diseases. 2) Assist the government Ministry of Health in developing its response to non-communicable diseases.

When we arrive in Yangon, it will be Stephen's 5th trip to Myanmar and my 2nd. As country director in Cambodia,  Stephen partnered with an organization in Myanmar on health projects.  He made three separate trips to the country for these projects and I accompanied him on one week-long trip.

Myanmar is a country that leaves strong impressions. Because Myanmar has been closed to the outside world for most of the last 50 years, the country and people show fewer signs of influence of the western world and exhibit more strongly their own ancient cultures and practices. Which makes it a fascinating place. We are eager to learn about Myanmar. Though there are some 100 language spoken throughout the country, 2/3 of the population speak Burmese. And that is the language we will begin to study soon. There are 135 different people groups recognized by the Myanmar government but every citizen of Myanmar is called "Burmese".

Some fun facts:

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the the political party National League for Democracy, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. We read her book "Letters from Burma" a collection of articles published in a Japanese newspaper about Burmese culture and life.

Myanmar is the same size as Texas but has twice the population. Texas has 27 million people and Myanmar has 55 million people.

The city of Yangon, soon to be our new home, has a population of 5 million people. As a reference, our former home of the greater Seattle area has 3.6 million people. :)

George Orwell's first book was "Burmese Days".

Stephen and I are so excited to move to Myanmar. This job seems so well suited for Stephen and I am hopeful I will find a teaching position that is a good fit for me as well. But we know we are going to suffer some hardships and lack of conveniences. Just like we did in South Africa and Cambodia, but in all likelihood, more so. Myanmar is a poorer country than either South Africa or Cambodia. It ranks 150 out of 187 on the UN's Human Development Index. South Africa ranks 118 and Cambodia ranks 136. My week long visit in 2012 (where I accompanied Stephen while he met with people in Yangon and out in a rural village) made Phnom Penh seem cushy by comparison. And as we found in Cambodia, what seems "adventurous" and "interesting" for a short while can soon begin to wear you down. The heat, the humidity, doing laundry daily, the food choices you want that simply aren't available, hard mattress, crumbling crowded sidewalks, crazy scary traffic. The list goes on. It is certainly not just a continuous exciting holiday. It's often quite hard. But we know that and we choose to go because we want to do this work more than we want comfort and convenience. When we left Cambodia we weren't sure what the future held. But after over a year in the states, we have new clarity that working on justice for people living in grinding poverty is how we do our part in God's dream for the world. It's what we can do and it's what we want to do. We just pray that God will be with us to guide our work and give us strength to endure the challenges.