Monday, December 15, 2014

Return to Yangon - Day 4

As I landed in Yangon, I vacillated between taking a taxi to the home of my Couchsurfing host or just giving the bus system another shot, since things went so smoothly before.

This time, I had no guardian angel, so, instead, just yelled out the name of a popular tourist attraction as each bus pulled up slowly to the bus stop, knowing the attaction was only a few blocks away from my host's home.

Jumping onto a passing bus, I sat down next to a man who spoke fairly good English. He assured me I was heading in the right direction. An hour later I found my way to the front door of my Couchsurfer's apartment building.



Myanmar lacks some Western conveniences, such as door buzzers, but the people certainly don't lack ingenuity. Each apartment has a rope tied to a bell, stretching down to the street.


If a visitor wants to get into the building, he pulls the rope, which rings the bell, notifying the occupant, who then attaches a front-door key to a small caribiner and slides it down. Some residents attach plastic bags to the end of the rope to haul up goods from passing street vendors.


Myanmar is the kind of place that guests need to follow the rules, which led me to a quandary.  I've always believed that the best way to understand a culture is by staying with the people who live there, which is why I'm a proponent of Couchsurfing, an internet site that matches travelers with local hosts.  The problem is tourists in Myanmar are allowed to stay only in officially-licensed hotels or guest houses, so, technically, by staying with a Couchsurfer, I would be breaking the law and breaking the terms of my visa.

To make matters worse, I read the following on the U.S. Department of State's international travel site: “Burmese who interact with foreigners may be compelled to report on those interactions to Burmese authorities. Security personnel traditionally place foreign visitors under surveillance; your actions, such as meeting with Burmese citizens, particularly in public spaces like hotel lobbies, rooms, and restaurants, could still be monitored.”

I didn't plan on staying with a Burmese citizen. My Couchsurfer was a Westerner who assured me it would be fine, so I made a calculated decision to do it.

My host, Jonathan, is an educational consultant/missionary, who's lived in Myanmar for four years. When he first arrived, he said it was common for secret police to follow him around, although now he says visitors are unmonitored, to the best of his knowledge.

As for the government's official policy that tourists can only stay in official hotels, Jonathan said the government is now much more relaxed. In addition, he said there's so much beucracy among agencies that it's hard for officials to keep track of anything, let alone an American staying where he may or may not belong.

The bottom line seems to be that home stays still are illegal or might not be, depending on which agency and which person is asked.

The American had nothing but good things to say about Myanmar and plans to stay long term. Since another friend was visiting, and I was also quite tired, we all just stayed in, watched a movie, and Jonathan answered all of my questions about his adopted country. I had an added bonus of sampling some of his authentic Myanmar cooking.

The next morning, I packed up for my return flight to Singapore, unpacked, and repacked for my flight to America for Christmas. I lead a rough life.

Although I'm grateful to have visited Myanmar and would urge others to do so, Myanmar isn't Disneyland.

President Thein Sein, a former general, is credited with numerous reforms, including easing media censorship, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, and forging agreements to end conflicts with several ethnic, minority, rebel groups.

However, critics say it's mere window dressing to garner favor with the West and that the reforms have slowed, if not regressed, in some instances.

The group, Human Rights Watch, says Myanmar is still one of the world's most repressive governments. Ethnic tension is the norm, which fuels the planet's longest running civil war, meaning some sections of the country are off limits to visitors. The fighting between the government and ethnic rebels is especially fierce in the northern Kachin region.

The military is accused of a host of human rights abuses: confiscating millions of acres of land and forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of people to make way for huge development projects; forced labor involving both adults and children; employing child soldiers; arbitrary arrests; torture; rape; human trafficking and outright ethnic cleansing.

For years, the main political opposition party, the National League for Democracy, urged tourists to stay away from Myanmar because it said the money went to the military. The party has since dropped that request, but the argument remains relevant.

The counterargument is that Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world, having suffered decades of economic stagnation, mismanagement, and corruption, and that any tourism helps build infrastructure, create jobs, and bring in much needed dollars and investment.

Others favor a middle ground of “responsible tourism”, encouraging travelers to stay in small, privately-owned hotels, and avoid government-owned businesses, such as resorts, trains, and airlines. For the record, I did take a flight within Myanmar, but I chose a private airline; however, I can't guarantee the money didn't end up in governmental coffers.


Regardless of one's politics, my personal impression is that the people of Myanmar are anxious for foreigners to experience the magnificent temples and the rich culture of the 100 ethnic groups that make up the country and anxious to leave behind the almost 50 years of international isolation.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bagan Part II - Day 3


Temples are great, but my most gratifying experiences involve contacts with local people. I came across these two women while biking around for a second day in Bagan.


I stopped, curious to know what they were gathering in the fields. Even though it's an archeological zone, people still grow crops here in the harsh landscape.

After watching them work for awhile, I wanted to snap a picture, but I feared offending them or, worse, exploiting the women, so I humbly walked up, said hello, and pantomimed taking a photo. They both smiled, so I snapped a couple of shots of them working.

Because I interrupted their labor, I felt it appropriate to offer them some money. The younger woman seemed pleased and showed me her crop - peanuts. The elder woman then opened up a small jar full of roasted peanuts covered with some sort of oil. She motioned for me to try them and afterward gave me a small piece of candy.



This photo is an shot of our impromptu snack.

By the way, upon hearing my home country, both women responded, "Obama."

The pagodas here are more than just tourist attractions. Buddhists actively use them for meditation.

                     





I spent my second day visiting some of the less-frequented pagodas, which gave me plenty of time to just soak in the surroundings and enjoy the sounds of silence.




It's high season in Myanmar, but it doesn't take long to find oneself alone.



As the day wore on, I rushed toward a temple I'd visited earlier to climb to the top to watch the sunset, but technology stood in the way. My bike's battery was running out quickly, even though I had a quarter of the way remaining to the temple. The wise decision would have been to turn back to avoid getting stranded in the middle of nowhere, but how often does one get to view a sunset from the top of a 14th century pagoda.


I pushed forward, hoping the owner of the bike shop meant it when he said he'd bring me a new battery if mine ran down. I rolled up to my destination, just as the battery appeared to die.


I climbed to the top but thought it best to call the shop in advance, which would have been a great idea if I had a phone. I could already see the headline, "American tourist devored by wolves after foolishly pushing his electric bike to the limit." Once again, the universe responded.

I spotted a tour bus driver and pantomimed my plight with an imaginary set of handlebars and a "vroom, vroom" in ever decreasing intensity.

The man laughed, acknowledging he understood and called the shop with his cell phone. Fortunately, he also knew the name of the pagoda because I certainly had no idea.

The driver handed me the phone, and I explained my delimma. "No problem," the business owner said. I told him I'd catch up with him after dark.

Twenty minutes later, he delivered a new bike, and I headed back to town, which I learned isn't a great idea because the roads are horrible and Bagan doesn't have any street lights. Live and learn. At least, I saw my sunset.

I spent my evening with the Hawaiian couple and packed for my return to Yangon, where a Couchsurfer host was waiting. There's only one problem - Couchsurfing is illegal in Myanmar.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Day 2 - Bedazzling Bagan



There's a lot of things I'd rather do than climbing out of bed at 4 a.m. after a long day of merriment with my Yangon drinking buddy, but a 7 a.m. flight to Bagan awaited. The alternative to 80 minutes in the air was 12 hours in a bus.


Of course,the advantage of an early-morning arrival is a full day of sightseeing. I decided to rent an electric bicycle to tour Bagan in style.


From the 9th to 13th century, Bagan was the capital of a powerful dynasty that later formed the basis for modern-day Myanmar. The rulers built over 10,000 Buddhist temples. Today, more than 2,000 remain in a 26-square mile stretch along a sandy, dry plain, making it the largest concentration of temples in the world. Some say the collection rivals Angkor Wat in Cambodia, although having been there, it's a hard call playing the comparison game.







Still, wherever it ranks on the “best” meter, Bagan is quite impressive.










Despite the thousands of temples, it's surprisingly easy to navigate the archeological sight because a road runs around the perimeter.


When I saw a temple that caught my eye …

     



 I drove onto a dirt trail leading to the structure,
                               armed with a map and descriptions of the pagoda.

                           

Tourism is still in its infancy, so it's possible to explore most of the interiors of the structures, including sometimes climbing on top for stunning views. Pagodas rise above the plains as far as the eye can see.



Rather than plan out an itinerary, I just wandered around but still managed to see most of the popular destinations.



However, there's a dark chapter hidden beneath Bagan's glittery charm. In 1990, the military government forcibly removed hundreds of villagers living inside the walls of Old Bagan, relocating them four miles away to New Bagan, which is outside the archeological zone.  The official reason – so the temples could be better protected. Yet, afterward, four large hotels were allowed to be constructed inside the zone, as well as a golf course and a 196-foot high viewing platform. As in most places, cash rules.

Like in Yangon, I felt most welcome in Bagan, especially as an American.



This is a picture of a Hawaiian couple and I with a group of 11th graders we met. Each one of the 20 or so students insisted on being photographed individually with us. After awhile, I felt like a rock star.

Each time I mentioned my home country the reply was always the same - "Obama."

I don't think it's because of his politics. Instead, the people I spoke to seemed to appreciate that Obama has visited Myanmar twice. As one man put it, "Obama come two times. Other presidents, zero;" however, another person I met said he completely understood why previous presidents didn't want to visit for fear of giving legitimacy to the military junta.


I photographed this picture taped to the wall of a restaurant, depicting the president's meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the main opposition leader to the current president. She lived under house arrest for 15 years because of her opposition to the military junta.

Years ago, I suspect few people would have dared to display such a photograph for fear of imprisonment, but times are changing in Myanmar and tourists seem anxious to take advantage of the opportunity to see the country for themselves.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Reawakening in Myanmar (Burma) - Day 1 Yangon



For almost half a century, a brutal military regime ruled Myanmar (Burma)* with absolute power, crushing all dissent, often using bullets, and shutting off the country from the rest of the world.  After elections in 2010, a civilian government took power and the aspiring democracy began reopening. International businesses and tourists soon followed.

Although Myanmar has undergone a series of political and economic reforms, many critics say the military is still largely in control behind the scenes, and the country continues to be plagued by allegations of human rights abuses.

Last summer, I considered visiting Myanmar during my trip to Southeast Asia but ran short of time. Now that I live in Singapore, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see for myself a country that for decades was inaccessible to most travelers.

Landing in Yangon, the nation's biggest city and former capital, I had no idea I was about to experience one of my most enjoyable days ever of traveling.

I try to utilize mass transit as often as possible. It's cheap. It's a great way to meet local people, and a great way to get a glimpse of an important aspect of their daily lives.

I'd read that Yangon buses can be a bit tricky to navigate, especially since everything is written in the Burmese alphabet, and most drivers don't speak English. Still, I wanted to try.

As I searched for the bus stop, I walked up to a man for assistance, debuting my Burmese expression for "hello." He smiled appreciatively, as I pulled out a piece of paper with the address for my hotel.

The gentleman scanned the details, looked up at me, and said it was near his parents' home. As luck would have it, he was headed that way.

We crammed into the bus, a rickety relic from the last century whose engine died each time we idled at a traffic light. My host insisted on paying my fair, despite my protests. "Welcome to Myanmar," he said in his limited English. Later, I handed him cash to pay for our transfer to another bus.

At first, he accepted with a smile, but a few seconds later, he handed back the money, saying, "I help you all the way." All I could do was respond with my only other Burmese expression, "thank you," an expression I found myself using throughout the day.

Traffic is notoriously heavy in Yangon, which it why it took over an hour to travel the 10 miles from the airport. Finally, we arrived. My guardian angel walked me to my hotel, gave me a hearty handshake, and was gone, but won't soon be forgotten.

After checking in, I wanted to find a place to eat and then head to Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most sacred Buddhist shrine and Yangon's most popular tourist attraction. My plans quickly became derailed by another chance meeting. In travel, like life, I believe one needs to be willing to flow with what the universe offers.

Some tourists say Yangon is just a big city, but I loved the electric vibe of the swarm of humanity and the sidewalk merchants.



Here a man was selling sugar cane juice using an old manual press. Note the longyi (sarong) he's wearing. Jeans haven't taken over here yet.

Walking around the neighborhood, I spotted a dining possibility, but as I approached the establishment, a man waved at me from inside another eatery. Fate had arranged my lunch and my afternoon.

The man spoke little English, but I managed to understand the main ideas. I sat down, and he suggested I try the local beer. One beer led to another, which led to a plate of delicious chicken. After several minutes, the man left. I assumed it was for good, but he later reappeared with his wife to introduce her to me. She also spoke little English, but it didn't seem to matter. That's the magic of travel.

When I finished, the man insisted on paying. We argued about it, but I realized, like with my friend on the bus, I couldn't refuse the overwhelming kindness of the Burmese.

Our day together wasn't over. Next, he took me to his sidewalk business, a small printing shop with a lone computer and copy machine. We enjoyed many more beverages on tables placed in front of the shop, maybe, too many beverages, but what could I do since it was a cultural encounter.



After about an hour, his wife left the shop. The man motioned for me to follow. You might be able to predict what happened next.

He lead me several blocks - after stopping to purchase another beverage - to a tenement building where he lived. I'm sure the guide books wouldn't suggest going to the home of a stranger, but sometimes you've got to trust your instincts. My instincts told me to follow. We climbed the five flights of stairs to his apartment, a simple but comfortable, sparsely-furnished 3-room dwelling.

Inside, his entire family was waiting - two sisters, his mother, grandmother, two nieces, and his seven-year-old daughter, who he bragged about all afternoon. Here is a shot of her exhibiting her musical talents.


After awhile, everyone left except his wife and daughter, who I tutored in English. The parents beamed with pride each time the precocious girl identified an object I pointed to in her school books. The afternoon stretched into evening. I didn't want to wear out my welcome, so finally I left, after receiving hugs from everyone.

Friends often ask me how it's possible to journey to distant lands not understanding the language or the culture. I tell them the universe normally responds IF we'll take the leap into the unknown.

Eventually, I did make it to the Shwedagon Paya (pagoda), a stunning sight because,  fortunately, the shrine stays open until 10 p.m.  The structure was built between the 6th and 10th century, but Myanmar is prone to earthquakes, so the current pagoda dates back to 1769.


The main pagoda is covered with gold, not gold leaf, but sheets of gold. Hundreds of diamonds encircle the top of the structure.

Buddhists come from all over the country to meditate here, as you can see with this monk.



However, the beauty didn't come close to equaling the pleasure of my random encounters with my new friends.


Next stop ... Bagan.

* Note: In 1989, the military junta changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. Many ethnic and political groups - including the governments of England and the United States – still refuse to accept the military's action and continue to refer to the country as Burma. The UN does recognize the name Myanmar.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Singaporean Tip of the Day

Last night, I spoke with a British woman who told me the key to beating the maddening heat and humidity in Singapore — buy a house with good ventilation. Nice advice, until one considers that houses here can easily run into the millions. I had to laugh.


This one seems to have good air flow. Maybe, Santa can hook me up.



Note: The above photo is from the free media repository on Wikimedia Commons.

Another Example of Why I Teach

I couldn't feel any more fulfilled right now as a teacher.

Like any academic pursuit, acquiring a second language demands a lot of study, dedication, and perseverance; however, there's an additional, frustratingly unique skill required, a skill that's completely beyond the control of the learner  — the awareness that no matter how hard one works the brain will make sense of a language when and only when the brain is ready and not a moment sooner.

When I lived in Guatemala, I conjugated verbs and memorized vocabulary each day for several hours. That's what overachievers do, and it normally leads to success, but no matter what I tried I found my progress with Spanish to be slow. What does any overachiever do in this situation? He works even more, of course. Still, no success.

It was at this point that my polyglot friend told me I needed to put down the books, take a deep breath, and allow the mystery of language acquisition to unfold without my pushing it.

Having gone through the ordeal, I possess a tremendous amount of patience with students trying to learn English, which is why I wasn't overly worried when my school feared that a Chinese boy wasn't going to make it academically.

The boy, who I'll call Cheng, was withdrawn, never spoke in class, lacked enthusiasm for his studies, and performed poorly on tests. Normally, that would be a formula for failure but not in the case of a second-language learner.

Most students go through a "silent period" when they appear to be confused and might not be saying anything in class but are still processing the new language. Eventually, sometimes months later, the child sorts it out and blossoms.   

Teachers also tend to forget that foreign students often are hundreds or thousands of miles from home; living, in many cases, with extended family or no family; don't understand the culture; lack friends; and have been thrown into classes taught in another language.

Frequently, I ask my colleagues to imagine how they'd feel if, as adults, they were shipped abroad and thrust into a rigorous, Chinese academic program or Swahili or anything else other than English.

Under the circumstances, I'm amazed how quickly our kids adapt, but that wasn't happening with Cheng, even though the 14-year-old had just been in Singapore for six months.

Earlier this week, I spoke to a veteran administrator who's run schools around the world. He told me the secret for any child to be successful is to find a way for the student to make some sort of connection within the school community. It could be a club or a sport or a study group or any other activity that gives the new student a feeling of belonging.

In this case, the teacher assigned to work individually with Cheng just happens to be American, and Cheng just happens to love everything about America. During our second meeting, he asked me how much the newly-released iPhone6 would cost in my country. At that point, I knew the battle had already been won.

I'd like to take credit for Cheng's success over these past six months, but really I just fed him a steady diet of American literature, American conversation, and got out of the way, allowing the brain to work its magic.

And so last week I found myself sitting with Cheng in front of his geography class, waiting to listen to him talk about a deadly earthquake he lived through years ago in China that killed 70,000 people and left five million homeless. I decided to interview him to reduce the pressure.

The 7th grader, who had arrived 10 months earlier speaking little to no English, now held the floor and held his classmates spellbound as he described his ordeal in almost flawless English.

Teaching isn't a financially lucrative profession, but I can't imagine any greater reward than watching a child, who I fear might not have lasted much longer in Singapore, excelling at the highest level.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Summer



I can't help but feel Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole are mocking me.

In Singapore, there's no need to dream about a white Christmas with daily high temperatures at or approaching 90 degrees, and who in his right mind would roast chestnuts on an open fire in such extreme humidity.

It's Christmas in the tropics.

From all external appearances, it's like any other holiday season,


                                              but look a little closer.


The North Pole doesn't have this kind of foliage in November, and you'd never catch Santa's elves jogging in shorts and t-shirts.


Normally, this stretch from November to New Year's is my favorite part of the year, but it's hard to generate much excitement this year because I'd probably break out in a sweat.  Last month, I walked into my apartment building, spotted my first Christmas tree in Singapore, and almost cried.

It was a reminder to me of the enormous power and influence of our imprinting. Singapore doesn't conform to my image of Christmas, so I'm left despondent, although Singaporeans seem to easily look past the heat and humidity. It's the same reality, but I perceive it quite differently.

My time in Singapore has been a wonderful experience, but it's yet another example of why living overseas isn't always easy and the acclimation process doesn't happen overnight.

So, for those tired of the cold snap back in America, remember, it could be worse. You could be in danger of suffering a heat stroke on Christmas Day.