Moving to a new city involves adjusting and adapting to different things. When that new city is also in a new country the number of differences goes up. Moving from the US to Yangon, Myanmar has meant a long list of differences for us to learn how to deal with. In this post I describe a few of those differences.
We moved into our first apartment in Yangon several weeks ago. Our landlords are the sweetest people.
They are a family of three and the daughter speaks the most English, but it is limited. She mostly talked through the real estate broker or a friend to tell me everything I needed to know about living in this building. The infrastructure is different here in Yangon and this family and other condo owners and businesses throughout the city have found ways to do what they need to do.
First, the water that runs through the pipes into the condo is not safe for drinking. We don’t even brush our teeth with tap water. Many Burmese purchase 20 litre (5 gallons) bottles of water for 600 Kyats (US$0.60). We have seen men pushing cart loads of these bottles all around the city. Our landlord bought us our first bottle as a gift and then when they brought it into the apartment he also went and found a wooden stand for it to sit on. They suggested that we buy 3 bottles at a time and then exchange them.
Another challenge with the city provided water is that it normally only runs in a trickle. When we were searching for apartments, whoever was showing the unit to us would show us the water pressure through the tap. In our building, every unit has its own water pump and its own holding tank located on the roof.
I have to turn the pump on every day and sometimes multiple times a day. (The green light means the pump is on.) The way that we know the tank has refilled is it starts to overflow and run out a pipe in the bathroom.
We were warned the first day of moving in not to switch the pump on and leave. They said it would flood the apartment. We found out the hard way that this is exactly what happens. :(
The second large infrastructure challenge is power. The electricity cuts out frequently, sometimes multiple times a day and sometimes for many hours at a time. Often in the heat of the day when more air conditioners are putting demand on the system. To protect appliances from frequent power surges, every major appliance:
has its own surge protector. Our landlords purchased these and paid to have them installed. The surge protectors save them money in the long run but having to buy them in the first place is just part of the cost of living in Yangon. We did not have these surge protectors in either Tugela Ferry, South Africa or Phnom Penh, Cambodia and appliances burned up often.
Also in response to unreliable power, residents and businesses have backup generators. In Cambodia, our apartment complex had a large backup generator to power everything in the entire building. We were rarely without power for more than a few minutes because of this. The building we live in now in Yangon, does not have one of these giant generators for the building. So each resident must cope with loss of power individually. Our landlords have provided us with an “inverter” and a battery.
This small battery backup can only power the lights and the fan we purchased that can be plugged into the one outlet on the inverter box. As I mentioned above, the power cuts out daily and generally in the hottest part of the day. In less than the two months since we first moved in, it is easier to count the days we didn’t have a power outage. And we have had three evenings when there was no power, no air conditioning, for 4-6 hours. The daily temperature highs have been 37-39 degrees C (98-104 degrees F).
Another difference is that even without power I can still cook. I have a gas countertop cook stove and a gas bottle under the counter.
The fan, though, that pulls the gas and smoke outside is run by electricity so when the power is out, I have to open the window instead. Incidentally, this means that whatever cool air I might have in the apartment will seep out while the hot outside air seeps in. Cooking in Yangon is a hot activity! Even when the power is on. There is no air conditioner installed in the kitchen. I think if I were installing things myself, I would definitely put an air conditioner in the kitchen!
There are other things about our apartment that I would do differently. The bathrooms would have a much different design. In every apartment we looked at, all the bathrooms except one in a brand new building, was the same design: it is just one room with toilet, sink and shower altogether. There is no separate space for the shower so the water splashes everywhere in the room. This poses a unique challenge for keeping clothes, towel, toilet paper and really everything else from also getting wet! Not to mention the challenge of walking on slippery wet floors.
Another change I would make is the open drains. Under the kitchen sink there is an open drain that accommodates both the sink and the washing machine.
In the one bathroom there is an open drain that accommodates the sink and the water tank overflow.
It’s not just that these open drains aren’t nice to look at, they smell and at night when not much water is flowing down, bugs fly up.
So yeah, that’s not so pleasant. But the rest of the apartment is actually quite fancy. In the living room alone we have 12 different light switches.
The wood floors are gorgeous.
The sofa is a large sectional with a matching glass coffee table. We have the largest screen TV we’ve ever had that sits on a beautiful TV stand. And the landlord purchased a year’s worth of “skynet”, 120 different channels. Mind you the majority of those channels are not in English. But still, we never had cable TV in the states. We have a brand new refrigerator, microwave, and washing machine. No dryer of course. Practically no one owns a dryer; everyone hangs their clothes to dry. You can see clothes hanging outside drying everywhere you go. So we have to plan ahead a bit more here than when we had our own electric dryer in the US.
The open drain concept continues outside. Along the streets are open sewers. Sometimes the sidewalk goes beside them,
sometimes over top of them.
We are always cautious about walking above a sewer channel. The sight and odor of them are both intense and unpleasant. But we have learned to focus our attention on other things:
The beautiful flowers.
The guys playing a kind of hacky sack game using a ball made of reeds.
Quick smiles from those we walk past. Greetings from older people welcoming us and thanking us for being in their country.
Delicious mangoes that you can only get in Myanmar.
Skilled barbers who charge $0.65 for a haircut!
And many other things.
Last week we made a quick trip to Thailand. Stephen had meetings with one of the partners to the project, Thammasat University.
Our international flight was about an hour and a half. It can take less time to travel from country to country here in Southeast Asia then it can take to travel state to state in the US.
We use our passports a lot and we have to learn and comply with the different visa rules for each country. Currently we have short term visas for Myanmar that we need to renew every couple of months. And we have to leave the country to do that. Our trip to Thailand served that purpose this month.
We exchange US dollars for Myanmar Kyats or Thai Baht on a regular basis. And we know what things cost in these foreign currencies relative to US dollars.
Temperature is in Celsius. At first we had to convert to Fahrenheit but now we know that 26 feels cool and 44 is stinking hot!
So many differences between our life in the states and our life in Yangon. But we seem to be adjusting and adapting quickly. And that’s important. Change causes stress and stress causes illness. So the better we are able adjust to all of these changes, the less stress we will have and the less risk of getting sick. Sickness threatens our work. And we want to be able to stay and do good work.
So far…so good!