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.