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, April 28, 2015

Thingyan: Water Festival

Stephen and I moved to Myanmar just two weeks before the biggest holiday of the year: Thingyan or Water Festival. We were warned ahead of time that everything shuts down. Grocery stores close, restaurants close, businesses close. Everyone is on holiday. No working for the entire country. We went shopping to stock up on groceries and the stores were madness! We stood in line to pay almost twice as long as we spent shopping for the items we wanted to buy! 

The Water Festival days were Monday April 13 through Thursday April 16 and the main entertainment/activity for everyone is get yourself and everyone else as soaked as possible. I kind of thought the Burmese people might be less inclined to spray expats. Boy was I wrong. They gleefully included us in the festivities. 

Stephen and I ended up going out on the first and last days of the festival and we got really wet both times! On Monday we started walking one way along our road and before long someone was aiming a water cannon in our direction. Stephen was happy to join in the fun right away and ran right through the spray. There were water stations everywhere. Some just drums of water that people scooped out pans of water to throw. Some large platforms had multiple hoses set up. 

We headed the other direction toward the lake just to see what was happening and after about two blocks, some guys ran over to us and dumped pails of water all over us. 

Then they shouted “Happy new year!” And ran back across the street. We were soaked through. April is the hottest time of the year in Myanmar so maybe everyone loves Thingyan so much because getting sprayed with water cools you off. Everyone seemed really happy, that’s for sure!

Formal businesses were closed but there was plenty of street food. Stephen suggested we find an Indian woman because likely she would be selling vegetables. (Since we don't speak Burmese we couldn't ask what was in the food.)

Stephen is allergic to shellfish and so much of the food in Myanmar and the rest of Asia has some kind of shellfish in it. But there is also plenty of vegetarian food, partly from Buddhism. 

Eating street food is a risk but we chose to take that risk and enjoy the festive atmosphere. Not only did we buy some fried food we also bought a bowl of noodles where the cooks were mixings the ingredients together with their fingers. 

The woman whom we bought the noodles from was really sweet. All of her tables were full so she gave us little stools to sit on in the park behind all the street vendors. 

For 500 Kyats (50 cents) we got a lovely bowl of noodles and a small bowl of broth. Street food is delicious and inexpensive. And neither of us got sick! ha!

Thingyan originated as the Buddhist version of a Hindu myth. The dates of the holiday used to be determined by the traditional Burmese lunisolar calendar with the end of the holiday being the beginning of the new year. Today the holiday is attached to the Gregorian calendar dates of April 13-16. It is the most important public holiday in Myanmar. The sprinkling of water is a symbolic washing away of the previous year’s sins. I read on wikipedia that young men do a kind of rapping (than gyat) about the ills of the country on such topics ranging from fashion and consumerism to crime, corruption and inept politicians. We heard this rapping many times over the course of the week but of course we couldn’t understand what they were saying. 

On the 4th and last day of Thingyan Water Festival we decided to venture out from our apartment again to see if just maybe a restaurant or two might actually be open for business. The enthusiasm had not diminished in the least. In fact it seemed that people were more bold and eager to spray you or dump a bucket of water on you. Within minutes of leaving our apartment, we were soaked from head to toe multiple times. I tried to shield myself with my umbrella but this seemed to just make people try harder to get me. One girl, when I tried to block her, pushed my umbrella aside and threw a bucket of water on my head. On the first day, it seemed that the guys across the street were careful not to get our heads wet, but by the fourth day as a truck passed us, a girl threw a bowl of water that splashed me squarely in the face. Not only that but a couple of guys sprayed us with water guns filled with ice water. I couldn’t help but let out a yelp when it hit my back! People were selling plastic covers on a string for cell phones and wallets. Fortunately my purse is almost waterproof.

We did find a restaurant that was open and from our outdoor table we watched the street and all the people passing by. Truckloads of people driving continuously from one water station to the next. Down the street just a block from our restaurant, was a main street lined with water cannon stations on platforms built just for the festival. Also on the platforms were huge speakers blaring dance music with live performers.

Tons of people walked or drove down this street. 

I’m glad we got to be here for the big holiday. it was nice to see people enjoying themselves playing in water. We enjoyed ourselves too.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Health Project

Public health. Population health. These are terms I did not know before Stephen started his Master in Public Health program. As he learned, I learned too. We were introduced to Paul Farmer through a book written about him by Tracy Kidder called Mountains Beyond Mountains. It was a fascinating and inspiring biography. Previous to this introduction I had very little understand of healthcare, policies, risk factors or social determents of health. It’s all quite complex, but I am trying to understand. What drives me to learn is compassion for people and a desire to work toward a more just and equitable world. 

One of the things I’ve learned is that those in poverty suffer the greatest burden of disease. Before traveling outside the US and reading books about global poverty, I think my understanding of being poor was about not being able to buy cars or houses or nice clothes. But poverty, in a country such as Myanmar, is so much worse than that. It means you are exposed to working environments that are more toxic, transportation that is less safe. It means getting sick and there is no doctor or no medicine or no money to buy medicine. It means dying in childbirth because there is no skilled healthcare worker to help with the birth. It means having only rice to eat, being malnourished and living with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. 

Many people in Myanmar suffer all of these things. In the US and other high income countries like the UK, Germany, Japan, Finland, and New Zealand, infectious disease have been mostly eliminated or effectively treated. There is almost no malaria, TB, or measles. People live with HIV/AIDs on treatment. Because of lower burden of infectious diseases, life expectancy has increased. In high income countries life expectancy is now mid-70’s to 80’s, and the burden of disease is more from non-communicable diseases (NCD’s): cancers, heart disease, diabetes, chronic lung disease, etc. Myanmar not only has a high prevalence of infectious diseases but also rapidly increasing levels of NCD’s. In fact death rates from NCD’s are already higher for Myanmar than high income countries. The middle group of bars in this bar graph (from International Journal of Epidemiology 2012;41:847–860) shows the Southeast Asia Region countries compared to the whole world and to high income countries for NCD’s. This is the sad news. 

The good news is that in the last few years the leadership of Myanmar has been making some significant changes in the country. One of the new goals the government of Myanmar has adopted is “to ensure universal health coverage of health services for the whole population” by 2030. Not only that, but the government has asked for outside help in reaching this goal of universal healthcare. HelpAge, in an effort to support the government as it works toward universal healthcare, has begun a Health Project. And they hired Stephen to manage it. The project, funded by the European Union, started in February 2015 and goes through January 2019. 

While efforts must continue to address the still far too many cases of malaria, TB, diarrheal diseases, and other infectious diseases, they are decreasing in Myanmar. But non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) are on the rise. This increase is happening at such a rapid rate that swift action is called for. Currently the health policies of the country are focused more heavily on communicable diseases and a shift is required to meet the changing health needs of the people. The Myanmar government recognizes the need for such a shift but facilities are not sufficiently equipped and personnel are not adequately trained, lacking the skills to meet these growing health needs. One aim of the Health Project is to support the health system of Myanmar as it transitions from a focus on infectious diseases to a more comprehensive policy that addresses NCD’s as well.

This project is certainly an ambitious and hopeful one. But at this early date, there is much that is unknown. Stephen is in a learning curve and of course that is exhausting. By the end of each work day, he is spent. As luck would have it though, we have moved here just before the big Thingyan holiday. A Water Festival. The whole city shuts down for 5 days. So Stephen has a week off to rest, study and regroup.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

First week of work and apartment hunting in Yangon

It was a busy first week for Stephen. The project of which he is manager is just beginning so nearly every day last week he interviewed and hired new staff and met with partners. And in between, learning the operating systems of his new agency and meeting current personnel. He had a particularly "fun" meeting with the rector of the University of Public Health. Things are changing in Myanmar and people are feeling hopeful.

On Monday afternoon we started the apartment search. Rent is extremely high in Yangon. The deputy country director told me she has had to move every year she has been here. The first year the landlord increased the rent by 100% and the second year another landlord increased the rent by 50%. Stephen and I saw a billboard for apartments near our hotel that looked nice. Later, we learned the rent is $4500 per month!

Two staff from the office took us to look at the first apartment. Kyaw Kyaw Oo gave me his card and told me how to pronounce his name (Cha Cha Oow). I asked him what I should call him and he said (Cha Cha Oow). Burmese do not have surnames. If they go abroad, they choose a name to function as a family name. Typically their names are two to four syllables. Bo Bo was the other staff member to take us apartment hunting on Monday.

To enter an office or a home you must remove your shoes. This practice comes from Buddhism and the belief that the feet are the lowest (least sacred) part of the body. My tie shoes were slow, so the next day I wore sandals that were a little easier to slip on and off. We looked at seven apartments on Tuesday with a "broker" named Mu Kyi (Moo Chee).

Four more apartments on Wednesday and by Thursday we had made our choice. Kyaw Kyaw Oo and Bo Bo went with us and we met Mu Kyi (the apartment was one that she had shown us) at the apartment building. Stephen and I took another look to make sure we liked it and then we all sat in the living room while the owners and Kyaw Kyaw Oo and Bo Bo negotiated the price.

In Myanmar a full year's rent is required at the signing of the contract. Fortunately HelpAge is taking care of this for us. Otherwise we would not be able to rent an apartment here! Bo Bo and Kyaw Kyaw Oo were able to negotiate a lower price so that was good. This apartment was far and away the best that we saw. We will sign the contract next week.

When the HelpAge drivers are available, they pick Stephen up and bring him back to the hotel but we both took taxis a lot during the week. For the hotel we have a card with a map and Burmese writing on the back, for the HelpAge office we only have the address in English. But drivers get us where we want to go, even if they have to stop and ask another driver how to get there. The main roads are two and three lanes each way, but the side streets are hardly more than one lane. Cars have to stop and let other ones pass or slowly squeeze by each other. There are also pedestrians and bicycles on the roads too. The fare is pretty consistent 2000 or 2500 Kyats (chats) which is US$2 or $2.50. I had one driver want 3000 Kyats but when I said I paid 2500 Kyats the day before, he quickly agreed to my price.

As we are living out of the hotel at the moment, we have to eat dinner out almost every night. We saw a sign for an Italian restaurant on the drive to the office, only a short walk from the hotel. It was wonderful. We thought we had fabulous restaurants in Cambodia and did not think there would be that same kind of selection in Myanmar. But we have been pleasantly surprised.

If all goes to plan, next week I will be cooking for us, so on Saturday we went to two different shopping centers scouting out the groceries store items. Junction Square has restaurants, coffee and tea shops, and many bakery/pastry type shops.

And on the main floor I was amazed to find Clinique and Timberland.

Ocean Center also has restaurants and our favorite: a bubble tea shop called "Chatime".

On the 3rd floor there is a larger grocery store. It seems at least as good if not better than Lucky Market in Phnom Penh.

It is likely that I will do my grocery shopping there.

During the week I found Sharky's Artisan Bakery just a short walk from the hotel. They had yogurt for sale so I bought one to try. It was excellent. Yogurt was sometimes difficult to come by in Phnom Penh.

Monument Books is here, a bookstore that was in Phnom Penh, so in the afternoon Stephen walked there and bought "Burmese for Beginners" so we can begin our language study.

My favorite part is learning the script. It feels artistic to me.

While Stephen was at work, I did some watercolor sketches in the hotel. My watercolor crayons were the easiest thing to get to in our luggage. So at least I was able to do a little art. I am impatient to get to my colored pencils and acrylics, but the watercolors will hold me over until we move into our apartment.

We have been here one week and our senses have been bombarded. Sights, smells!, tastes, sounds, and the feel of the heat and humidity. Myanmar is a Southeast Asian country so it shares some features with Cambodia and Thailand, countries Stephen and I are more familiar with. But Myanmar is its own unique country with a mix of cultures, values, and its own history. It's going to take a lot more than a week to start to understand our new home.