Thursday, April 24, 2014

First day on the train back

Wednesday, April 23

We’ve now been on the train for 26 hours. This train ride is turning out to be the most magnificently relaxing experience I could imagine. Since it’s low season, we have our 4-bed cabin to ourselves. The train is rather empty and we’re not really interested in the other passengers (there are maybe 10 other foreigners on board, mostly retirees!) Every few hours there is a very short stop in a station, but mostly there’s nothing to see or buy, and not much time.

First breakfast on board
Our last night before the train was short since we had so many last things to organize before disconnecting for a week – so we spent the first day on the train napping on-and-off. It turns out that sleeping on the train is HEAVENLY. The repetitive sound of the train’s motion and otherwise silence, along with the slight rocking offers one of the best sleeps I’ve had in a while.

The view outside is extremely dull. That’s why it’s low season – blue skies and yellow fields don’t offer much excitement. But maybe that just adds to the full relaxation – there’s nothing to make us jump up and grab the camera.

I’m also surprisingly not bored at all. Today we are getting off the train for 24 hours of a nature horse-back trip in Mongolia – I’m looking forward to it but could gladly also stay on in the train. Reading my book, napping, sipping tea and chatting with Arne is just so much fun.

Last night we stopped at the border between China and Mongolia – it was supposed to be a 3-hour break where we thought we’d get a good local dinner and also experience one of the highlights of the trip, where they lift the train (while you’re in it!) to change the wheels of the train to fit the Mongolian tracks. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. After the on-board passport check, we were shewed off the train and into the passport control area which had a mini-market and waiting room (and that’s it – no local vendors or restaurants). After buying our snacks and waiting a few minutes it was getting a bit dull so we decided to go back to the train – only to discover that we were locked in this building while the wheels were being replaced! Everyone else just made it back to the train (how did they know?) – and we had to wait 2 hours in this dull bureaucratic building while the fun was happening outside. We made a short excursion out to the other side of the passport control, but it wasn’t too relaxing since we weren't sure when we’d have to go back on the train, no one talked English, and we didn’t have our passports or train tickets (these were all taken from us..) Outside, we quickly found a Mongolian restaurant and ordered a (delicious veggy) dish for takeaway, and ate it in the dull building. It was a somewhat uninspiring experience.

Me, cold stairs, migrane.

Arne, Yummy fake Mongolian food: everyone's happy.
This morning, I wanted to make Arne coffee in bed, using one of the coffee sachets we had bought at the border minimarket last night. Imagine his delight when it turned out that while the smell was mocha-ish, the taste was.. very salty!! Actually, that might be a better wakeup call than boring ol' caffeine.

Doesn't it look like coffee?
After a short sunny stop at an abandoned railway station, we checked out the new restaurant carriage – last night they changed the Chinese restaurant into a glorious Mongolian carriage that not only has incredible d├ęcor but served me a delicious breakfast with one of the best omelettes I’ve ever had.

Oh, yes.

With only three more hours to Ulan Bator and our horsey trip – I’d better get to my book.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Work: training in Shan state

I’m spending a week in Shan state. I came here as part of the beekeeping project I’ve been involved in for the past few months. This time I developed a training on business skills and group formation for people who have just completed a basic beekeepers’ course and are about to form community-based beekeeping businesses. So I came to “train the trainers”, give feedback on the first training sessions and make sure they’re on the right track to deliver the content.

From Yangon, I didn’t expect to have any fun in Shan state. In Yangon it’s hot these days, the internet and aircon are moody, and it’s hard to imagine that an hour’s flight away there’s a haven of a cool, clean, quiet countryside.

The trainings take part in primary schools in small villages, some of which are not connected to the power grid. The schools all seem to have gorgeous views..

Great views from both schools

Training in Myanmar isn’t easy, because both students and trainers only know one training method: frontal teaching. The teacher talks, the students nod (and don’t take notes), and that’s it. So it’s quite challenging to try and introduce more participatory approaches, which require the class to contribute their ideas, practice new skills, and in fact verify that they are learning – not just staring!

But it definitely has its rewards. It’s easy to get these people excited  about marketing or about simple group games.. I guess it’s a big deal for students when instructors want to hear what they have to say.. they’re definitely not used to that.

I’ve already been to Pindaya before - the town where we’re staying. Last time I left thinking it’s just a crappy little town in the middle of nowhere; this time I love it. It is beautifully natural, and has the best trees I’ve ever seen. In the evenings, town people go down to the lake to bathe, do laundry and let their animals drink..

Really, the best trees. Does anyone know what these are called?
My hotel demonstrates what low standards I’ve come to have. It is the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon: I have a beautiful private balcony; The internet is just good enough to read and write emails; The tiny TV shows American movies in the evenings. For breakfast today I managed to get a delicious Burmese fried rice with some sort of tomato curry.. yum.

On Sunday I'm heading back to Yangon for the final ten days of packing and farewelling..

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Fabulous weekend in Mandalay

It’s now less than 3 weeks to departure-day. This closing-up period is pretty stressful and doesn’t offer much joy, so a great weekend in Mandalay was exactly what we needed.

Mandalay turned out to be completely different to Yangon in every way: it feels more like a big village than Myanmar's second biggest city. And the best thing – scooters are allowed so we had complete freedom to drive around in the city and its surroundings.

On the first day, our guide, in a very Burmese fashion, drove us around to places we didn't ask to go to, and repeatedly ignored our requests. It turned out well: we saw a thousand pagodas, but they were somehow different and interesting. 
The detail is incredible!

We visited shady lanes of white pagodas.. with young couples hanging out everywhere.

And my baby <3

Then we discovered the glass-art of Mandalay pagodas: I must've taken a million pictures of all the beautiful, colorful patterns our sex-changed guide observed us from the gate. I love how open Myanmar is to broader interpretation of gender.

The next day we got to drive our scooter around on our own. We got lost around villages where all the houses were full of weaving machines and people painting longyis. When we stopped for a refreshing sweet drink, the locals were delighted and all stood around and quietly watched us.

On our way we had to cross a scary local bridge.. I wasn't sure I'd make it.. But I did (silly me).

 But Arne was quite confident. And while I was waiting on the other side I caught these locals using the nice river as their dumpster..


Then on Sunday evening after some delicious yoghurts, the fun ended and we had to head back to real life. Tomorrow I'm leaving for a week in Shan state, training future beekeepers on business skills. I hope it will be fun! Or at least successful.. When I come back, it'll be for the last week of our Myanmar adventure..

Thursday, January 30, 2014

7 Days in Myanmar

Our weekend at the beach has finally arrived! we leave downtown around 5pm, ready for a long-haul drive to the beach. Traffic getting out of Yangon is horrendous, and we spend more than an hour and a half moving very, very slowly. Outside Yangon, the roads are dark, narrow, and windy; people are walking, invisible, on the road; fixing their cars on the road; riding bikes with no light reflectors. Trucks with only one front light, appearing like scooters, are packed with merchandise 5 meters wide. And on drove my loyal driver.

Until we saw an accident. Two people were sitting in the middle of a very dark, very narrow road. And their scooter was lying on the road a few meters ahead. We stopped the car, turning it around to light up the scene, so that other cars don’t run us over in the dark. Running to the people on the road, I wasn’t sure what to do.. it took me a moment to remember the existence and relevance of CPR. One young guy in his 20s was holding his friend in his arms. The first seemed fine; the second was certainly dead. I tried to get him to lay down his friend, so that we could check for vital signs and maybe try and do something; he wouldn’t let go and there was definitely no pulse. Slowly people started gathering around. Phone calls were made. No one spoke English. After a few minutes we offered to drive them somewhere – no one else had a car. Finally they understood, and agreed, and a group of 5 Burmese stumbled into our car. It seemed like they’d never been in a car before, because they didn’t know how to open the door, not from outside nor from within. We drove them to some community center they guided us to; with a stop on the way to talk to one of these crazy overloaded trucks to explain to the driver he had just killed someone.
We made it to the beach with a fast-beating heart around mmidnight, and were relieved to see our friends had stayed up waiting for us.


Our beach weekend started delightfully; beautiful weather, clean, empty beach, and a walk to a small gorgeous island. We ate sea food and salads, drank beer, and successfully avoided sunburn. At a reasonable hour, we retreated to our rustic bamboo huts.


3:30 am – I wake up abruptly from a scratching sound. Something is scratching. I shake Arne. I suggest that we try to scare THE THING away with noise, but under no circumstance leave the perceived safety of our mosquito netted-bed. Arne fearlessly still gets up and looks around. There’s no animal in sight and the scratching continues. I thump on the mattress – the noise stops. But there’s nothing under the bed. And then the noise continues. 30 minutes of searching conclude that THE THING was is living IN the mattress – really?? what was it? Not wanting to find out, we risk being eaten up by mosquitoes and gospend the rest of the night on the hammocks outside.

Nicer during the day.
Monday is eventless, thank god.

On Tuesday  

I get home from work, and there’s a power cut. That’s normal enough, but after a few hours I realize it doesn’t seem really normal: there’s no generator noise outside. I step out and quickly realize it’s not a general power-cut: it’s just us. And yes, I realize we moved into a new place where the power bills might work a little differently, and we haven’t paid them yet.
I quickly go pay the bill and the disconnection fine and am told that it's fine, tomorrow morning the power will be back on (as if just one night and morning with no power is nothing to even bother for). So I follow the Burmese advice and don’t worry: we go to a bar just to check the equipment before tomorrow’s pub-quiz, and end up having a great time, drinking way more than usual and staying up pretty late.


I wake up with a hangover. Still no power. And no power means no shower and eventually no water at all, since we need to pump it electrically to our apartment. I fill up a bucket, just in case. We skip the coffee and shower and go to work. 

At 6 pm I get home. Still no energy. No water. By now, the fridge has been warm for over a day and smells a bit funny; the toilet doesn’t flush anymore. I go to the people who promised it would be fixed and they say there’s nothing to do about it now; "come tomorrow". I'm hugely upset but no one cares and it’s not helping. It’s time for the pub quiz, so I go – It's Arne's turn to lead it, the place is packed, it goes great; and for the first time I join a team instead of helping the organizers, and my team wins.


has just started. Instead of going to work I went to discuss the power situation; again it’s been promised that the power will be back on today and again I believe them. I have no choice: we have guests staying over tomorrow and it HAS to be fixed. Please be fixed.

(Thursday evening) Spoiler alert: It wasn’t fixed. We were forced to stay over at a friend’s house and send our guests to a hotel. 

On the positive side, for lunch I finally dared to try chicken feet. Chicken feet soup!

Friday, October 11, 2013

My 45 days of unemployment

In July, it suddenly became very clear that the embassy will never have the funding - or the necessary momentum - to execute any of those development projects and partnerships I was working on. At least certainly not in the foreseeable future. I resigned, but stayed until the end of August; and that's when my 45 days of unemployment commenced.

My Unemployment Days began with a fabulous vacation in Thailand. 5 days in Ko Phi Phi, with white sands, western food, fruit shakes and the best company one could ask for; it was the perfect beach vacation.

Ko Phi Phi - no post processing needed

Once I got back to real life in Yangon, I had:

- My most intense networking efforts ever, emailing and talking and meeting with anyone I could about getting a job.
-  2 or 3 depressing days in which I thought I might never again have a proper job. This was not least because of all those terrible articles about millennials, and how being jobless is my destiny just because I was born in '82. This is one of them; though definitely not the most depressing (and at least also entertaining).
Everyone loves Lucy (and her unicorn)

- A 10-day vacation with Arne's family, including Inle, Bagan, a lot of food, hiking, biking (including in sun, mud, and rain) - good company, fun times.
Inle Lake on a gorgeous sunny day
- Still some work: I started teaching young Myanmars a course in Business Ethics, which is part of a 2-year business diploma; it's interesting to see how these (mostly buddhist) rich kids think. They're good kids. I also enthusiastically accepted a writing project to analyse data and write a report about disaster preparedness - really interesting stuff.

Once we came back from our family vacation, I had a week full of meetings: on Monday and Tuesday I was offered 3 jobs, on Wednesday another promising opportunity was discussed, and I decided to cancel the least appealing, last, meeting to discuss employment opportunities because it was just too much already.

A few stressful days followed in which I was trying to decide what the best job would be for me, and I'm happy to say that on Tuesday my unemployment days are about to be over. My new job is a little complex to explain (especially before having started), but I'm going to start up the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) office for the local chamber of commerce. My employer is actually a local NGO - a group of businessmen who have been working for 10 years implementing helpful projects using their business knowledge and contacts; they will manage the CSR office. My boss seems like a really cool guy (not to mention extremely successful and well-connected).

Finally, I'm happy to announce that this week I have completed level A1.1 of my German studies, which places me exactly half way to being able to "understand and use familiar, everyday expressions and very simple sentences, which relate to the satisfying of concrete needs". Impressive, I know.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mom's visit

Mom's visit recently ended. She came for 2 weeks, which turned out to be really fun. We took advantage of this visit as an excuse to eat out good Burmese food more often than ever, spend a weekend at Inle Lake, and also watch TV much more than usual.

Mom& Me at Inle

After some delicious Burmese food at our favorite Khine Khine Kyaw

19th street (China Town)
Mom with a nameless pagoda (at least I don't know it)
Beautiful Inle lake

Thanks for coming Ima! It was great! <3

To our future visitors - we're looking forward to have good fun with you too!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tipping point

The last few weeks seem to be n a tipping point in our life here. Several elements came together, all at once, to make our weird existence here suddenly seem beautiful and inspiring.

1. The rainy season came. We heard so much about how impossible the rainy season is - days and days of heavy rain with no stop, hip-high water in the streets downtown. Instead, what we got is a beautiful green Yangon, with refreshing bursts of rain once a day cooling the air, cleaning the streets, masking the noise and slowing everything down just a little bit.
A nursery in Yangon last weekend

2. Arne got a job. Who would've thought that changing from time-off to full-time-work would be such a huge happiness booster. Not only does he have a job, he has an amazing job, and it even came with a car.

2.a. We got a lucky break - Arne's office is just next door to mine. That means we get to drive to work together and also meet for lunch some days.

The lakey where we eat lunch every other day

Free side-dishes that come with lunch

3. My extra-curriculur activities started paying off, mentally. The business development work I've been lazily doing for a couple of months finally picked up and has become really interesting and somewhat intellectually stimulating. My initially-frustrating art classes are starting to bear some fruit.

My best work to-date. Ever.

4. I realized how generally stimulating and inspiring life here is. Our friends, though at first sight perhaps a normal group of western alcoholics, are actually an extremely intelligent, caring and socially-aware bunch. Really special people. You can always count on them to surprise you with new ideas. And then there are all the other surprises - at work, dealing with completely new challenges; at home - discovering a corner in the neighborhood you never noticed, or suddenly understanding something you didn't get before.
A parked train, just outside our home.
Things you don't see when you always take the bridge.
.. And Myanmar continues as before. Our house-dog is pregnant, my favorite market has been surprisingly torn down, but otherwise it's really all exactly the same.  

The external display of out downstairs shop, one lucky day