Saturday, February 21, 2015

What's New in Mandalay

I find it hard to believe that it's February 21, 2015.  Time seems to be flying by.  Nothing extraordinary has happened but I thought I'd fill you in on what I've been up to the last couple of weeks.

I continue to love having the new Citimart grocery store open.  The good news is they have a variety of western products, including cheese, ham, olives and more.  The downside is that they cost American (or more) prices.  When I shop at Mingalar, the produce market I prefer, I can spend $10 for all the food I can carry.  At Citimart, I can spend $40 for one bag of groceries.  Still worth it, though.

Teaching first grade is an adventure every day.  I work hard to keep it fresh for the kids and for myself.  Routine is good because kids that age like to know what to expect.  But, it's always good to have novelty and make it interesting.

Last week we had international tests for grades 3-10.  One of the grade 4 teachers asked if I was willing to do some shared stuff in the afternoons after their tests.  You bet!  The first afternoon, we played Science Jeopardy to help my kids prepare for their upcoming Unit 6 Science test.  My first graders proudly beat the socks off their grade 4 competitors.  Admittedly, my guys have been studying this stuff for the last few weeks and this was long ago info for the 4th graders.  It really didn't matter who won - there was learning going on and a lot of excitement and fun.

The country celebrated Chinese New Year last week.  At least 50% of people in Mandalay are of Chinese descent so it's a big deal.  So big, in fact, that only 6 of my 19 students showed up that day.

We started the day with the fourth grade again.  The seven students from their class joined ours and we created timelines of a typical day.  Wonderful to see the kids working so well together and helping each other.

It's customary to give gifts of food and cash on Chinese New Year.  Kids told me about receiving up to $100 from family and family friends.  One boy came in on the holiday with a grocery bag full of "snacks"  = cookies, chocolate, jellies, etc.  The bag was a gift from his Chinese tutor.  I asked if he planned to eat all of them (anticipating a major sugar high) but he assured me he only planned to eat two- one for each of our breaks.  He gave me one snack and another to Tr. May, our assistant teacher.  When he realized that only five other students were there that day, he realized that he had plenty of snacks to share with all the other students.  He told me before school he had a surprise - he was going to give everyone a snack.  All day, he kept reminding me of his surprise and I let him know it was up to him to decide when to share.  He happily waited until the end of the day when he announced his surprise to the class and shared his treats.  I was happy to hear the "thank yous" and see the appreciation.  The best treat of the day was at the very end of the day when this independent, creative, sweet little boy gave me a hug for letting him share his "surprise".

The same day, we had one period where the kids worked on a variety of projects in math and language arts.  When they finished their work, they got to read or draw.  One boy was drawing and proudly came up to give me the "project" he'd made for me.  He'd drawn a heart, colored it in and written the word "LOVE" in the center, then cut it out.  He gave it to me and told me it was because he loved me.  I love him, too, along with the rest of these amazing kids.

Since there were so few kids at school, for the last 30 minutes of the day I organized a kick ball game for all 3 first grade classes.  13 on one team, 12 on the other.  We didn't exactly go by the rules but everyone had a fabulous time.

On Friday, I went grocery shopping after school to one of the three modern grocery stores in the city.  While checking out a family asked if they could take their photo with me.  Sure.  Always nice to be a celebrity.

After shopping, a friend and I went out to dinner and then to the beauty salon for shampoo, blowdry, massage and mani/pedi.  Total for pizza, beer and spa was $14.  A great Friday night.

Next week is a full week of school and then on Saturday I'll fly to Bangkok for a visa run.  We've got three days off the following week so it will be short.  I'm looking forward to the break in Thailand but also to a week with my littles.  There's nothing better than seeing all that excitement and enthusiasm as the kids come in every morning.  Except, maybe, all the hugs I get every day.

Friday, February 6, 2015

New Friends

The internet has made the world so much smaller.

I got an email from a charming lady from London recently.  She'd been googling Zeygo market because she was coming to Myanmar with a small tour group.  She stumbled upon my blog and not only took the time to read it, she emailed me about it.

After a couple of email exchanges, we agreed to meet up when she was in Mandalay.  I'm so glad that we did!

We agreed that I'd pick up Dorothy and her friends Diana and Miki at their hotel at 4:00 p.m.  on a Friday evening.  I must confess, as the day progressed, I was not looking forward to it.  My Friday evenings are usually dedicated to being a sloth and relaxing after a tiring week.  Having said that, I knew that once we met and got out, I knew we'd have a good time.  I was right.

Another teacher and I met the ladies at their hotel and we planned our evening.  I was a bit concerned that they had passed on their group tour of U Bein Bridge and dinner to spend the evening with us.  Especially since we weren't taking them to the tourist sites, but rather to the places that we go to regularly.

We started at Mingular market, the produce/wet market where I buy most of my food.  We wandered around and tasted some of the local fruits.  Miki and I agreed that dragon fruit is a big damn disappointment.  It is beautiful and has an exotic and misleading name, since it is one of the blandest fruits you can find.  Dorothy was impressed, as I am, with the Mandarin oranges, which are relatively cheap and plentiful here.

Our next stop was a quick one at Gandamar market, which is a local grocery store.  Dorothy was interested in buying some soap for souvenirs and I've bought thanaka soap there.  Less than a dollar, smells like sandalwood and foams up nicely.

Next we headed to our primary goal - Style Star, the salon where I go at least once a week.  It was busy on a Friday night but we each got a treatment fairly quickly.  Three of us went for the shampoo/shoulder and arm massage and blow dry.  Two of us opted for the foot/leg scrubbing and massage.  The hotel where the ladies stayed charged $70 for a foot massage.  Style Star, which is for locals rather than tourists charges $6.50.  The shampoo/massages were $2.50.  The ladies seemed quite pleased and seemed to really enjoy the pampering and local experience.

To top off the evening we headed to Joy Garden on 62nd St., near 35 to have a Myanmar dinner.  Rather than ordering from the menu, we went for the barbecue.  We chose the sticks of stuff we wanted - paneer cheese, okra, spring onions, goat, chicken, pork, spicy fish in banana leaves, a whole fish, lotus root and more, along with a bottle of white wine, some sodas and a beer for $35.  Our visitors generously paid for dinner. The food and the conversation were terrific.

I so enjoyed meeting these ladies.  We found so many things in common.  We had so many common interests.  Intelligent conversation.  The serendipity of spending time with like-minded strangers.  I'm sorry we only had a few hours together.  They each generously offered to host me at their homes in London.  I hope they realize I was very serious when I said I'd take them up on it.  I'm already checking dates and flights.  Really, 70 countries and I've never been to England?  I have to correct that.  Having new friends there will just make it better.

Tooth

We lose a lot of teeth in first grade.  It just comes with the territory - six year old kids lose baby teeth.  One day I found a tooth on the floor.  No one claimed it.  Served as a great science experiment, though.  We put it in a glass of Coke and waited to see what would happen.  The kids were appalled a couple of days later when they saw the tooth just rotting away.

 After the Christmas holiday, which was three weeks long, I took a poll of number of teeth lost.  7.  It's fun to watch the new "adult" teeth coming in.

On Tuesday, we had another tooth lost and this time, it was mine.  Actually, I just lost a crown.  It happened at lunch and I was very happy I didn't swallow it.  The kids thought it was very funny that I lost a baby tooth.

Aye Aye Than, who is the heart of our school, arranged for a driver to take me to the dentist after school.  I hate dentists.  I've had bad experiences, including a drunk dentist who broke off a Novocaine needle in my gum (yes, in the United States).  As I opened the door to the dental clinic the smell hit me.  Classic dentist office smell.  From the tiny lobby I saw the bottom half of a man lying in a dental chair and heard the drill.  I cringed.

Thankfully, 30 minutes and $20 later I was on my way - crown cemented back into place.  The female dentist spoke some English.  The equipment seemed current and the place, while not fancy, was very clean.  The dentist was double gloved.  There were no shots and no pain.

The kids were very impressed the next day that my tooth had already grown back.  If you're in Mandalay and need dental work, check out Pepsodent - near the Palace and conveniently next door to a travel agent and money changer.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Buying a Car in Myanmar

I've typically purchased cars new, direct from the dealership.  Yes, more expensive and yeah, yeah, yeah you lose money when you drive off the lot.  That's the advantage of being single.  I can make irrational financial decisions and only have myself to answer to.

My last car, though, was about 6 months old and I bought it from CarMax.  This isn't a CarMax commercial but it was a great process.  Two incredibly patient men (one a salesman, the other a friend) walked me around the lot, went on test drives with me and were just generally awesome.  I had a similar, although much faster, time when I sold the same car a year later, back to CarMax, at a fair price.

In Myanmar,  there is no CarMax.  Cars here have been limited due to government controls and since there's more demand than supply, prices are ridiculously high for even used vehicles.   The government is now allowing more vehicles in but prices are still crazy.  I've been looking at 20 year old beaters that I'd pay about $500 for at home.  In my Myanmar home, they're more in the $6,000 range.

Another difference is that you don't go to a car lot to look at cars.  There are such things, I actually saw one but there are dozens of men waiting there to sell their cars.  My local friend advised me not to get out of the car.  Seeing my foreign loveliness, they'd mistakenly assume I'm rich and willing to spend.  Wrong on both counts.

Instead, a taxi driver that I've been using recently has been brokering deals for me.  He shows up after school with a car for sale and the guy selling the car (for someone else).  I check it out and give it a thumbs up or thumbs down.  It's kind of becoming my new hobby.  I may never find a car I like but I'm meeting a lot of nice local guys.

Today had to be a salesman's nightmare.  He showed up with a 1992 Toyota Corolla.  Diesel.  Sounded like a semi.  I test drove it.  Hmm, I could turn the steering wheel about 90 degrees without the wheels responding.  Plus, it was an automatic but the gear shift moved at will, rather than locking into place.  The salesman said he could fix both of those things.

His worst moment though?  I turned the car off after I drove it.  He couldn't get it started again.  I was gently ushered off to my apartment while the menfolk got jumper cables and a school vehicle to try to get it going.  I was chuckling as I walked up stairs and then I started guffawing out loud.  I heard cows.

What's worse than a car that won't start in front of a prospective customer?  Trying to jump it on a narrow dirt road when a herd of cows strolls by, acting like they own the road.  The cows were not pleased with the vehicles on their road and were loudly telling the cars and men to get the heck out of their way.

The last thing I heard as I went into my apartment was mooing cows.  I didn't hear a car starting.  Hopefully it will be gone by the time they bring another car by tomorrow afternoon.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

All Good Things, Including Vacations, Must Come to an End.

I loved Luang Prabang and hope to go back.   After a tuk tuk ride to the airport (for which I paid the same price as my ride from the airport in an air conditioned van) was fine, although there were six of us Western sized folks and the motorcycle struggled mightily getting up the hills.  Ironic that as we were discussing where we were from I found three of the other passengers are also teachers in Myanmar - they teach in Yangon.

After LP, I headed to Bangkok for more relaxing and eating.  Let's face it, I don't really travel, I just graze.  No photos from Bangkok.  I stayed at the hotel where I usually stay, ate where I usually eat and grocery shopped where I usually shop.  I mostly went for walks and took advantage of cable tv and fast internet.  Yes, I'm a slug, but a happy one.

It was an easy flight back to Myanmar and the afternoon weather was perfect - sunny and in the 80's. Arriving back home was easier because of the very friendly greeting of the immigration officers.  "Ah, my friend!  It is so good to have you back!"  Bet you've never heard that from a U.S. immigration officer.

Rather than wait for the other arriving teachers, I sprung for a taxi, since I was the first one through customs and the others weren't even in the long line yet.  A good choice, since they arrived over 2 hours after I did.  I went to my apartment, dropped off my junk and headed back out in the taxi to go food shopping.

Halfway there I realized I hadn't grabbed any more Myanmar money (Kyat, pronounced Chought).  I only had $25 worth with me but figured I'd just get a few items.   Silly me, I'd forgotten Myanmar prices.  I bought a large basket of of goodies at the market (carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, avocados, fresh prawns, onions, potatoes, green beans) then stopped at Chicken King to pick up a kilo of frozen chicken.  Chicken King, by the way, is actually a cell phone store which has a single freezer filled with chicken.  On the way back to school I also stopped for a bottle of Myanmar rum.  I came home with $15 left.

The prices weren't the only great part of my homecoming shopping.  The main thing was the greetings I got from the vendors.  Some saw me coming (I'm not hard to miss in Myanmar) and I saw them gesturing and yelling to their friends.  Lots of smiles and gesturing on both sides, since we were happy to see each other and they don't speak English and I don't speak Myanmar.

Back home, I got unpacked and settled in.  One teacher brought me parchment paper from the U.S. (we both like to bake) and another teacher brought a pair of sandals from Canada (we'd had a casual conversation about the challenge of buying shoes for Western sized feet).  Both were such thoughtful gifts and so appreciated.

I cooked up the prawns in a butter/chili/garlic sauce for dinner.  I enjoyed being back in my own home.  And in the middle of the night I listened to the faint sound of drumming coming from a nearby monastery.  Tomorrow I'll have to ask my local friends what the occasion was.  Yup, great vacation but good to be home.

Now, if Myanmar internet allows, here are some photos of my last day in Luang Prabang.
Another lunch, another great view of the Mekong river.

This was a small place, with a few tables and one middle-aged woman doing all the cooking and serving.  I went for the most expensive item on the menu.  Hey, I'm on vacation - who cares if it's 20,000 Kip.  Which is about $2.50.  Great food and a view!

Condiments for the omelette were (L to R) fresh lime, a sweet/salty dipping sauce and crushed peanuts.  The cook didn't speak enough English to tell me what was in the dipping sauce which is a shame because it was delicious.  I'm going to experiment by mixing some oyster sauce, sugar and rice vinegar.  I've never considered adding these items to an omelette but will be doing it from now on.  It transformed the meal.

A very hearty portion, filled with local greens (morning glory, sprouts, etc.) along with a bit of the local sausage.  Delicious.

One of the hotel uses these classic cars to pick guests up at the airport.  Rooms there cost about six times what I paid for a very pleasant hotel room.

Many of the hotels provide bicycles for guests.  These just happened to be made of bamboo.

Luang Prabang sausages, drying on the sidewalk.

My dinner, almost every night, came from the little barbecue stand next door.  My favorites - eggplant, green onions, squid, chicken and mushrooms.  About $3.00 for all this deliciousness which came with a fantastic lime, sugar and red chili dipping sauce.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Wat?

Another day of walking, eating and getting massaged.  I'm beginning to feel like high priced beef.  That is not a complaint!  I'm thoroughly enjoying days moving slowly by while I relax and just breathe.   Since there's a wat (pagoda) on every corner, I figured I might as well take photos.  Because of Luang Prabang's UNESCO World heritage status, they are the best maintained I've seen in Asia.

Lunch yesterday - a delicious sandwich on great French bread.  Camembert, cheddar, tomato, onion, lettuce and salami.  $2.50 and came with a view of the Mekong river.


I went for a light breakfast today.  I was excited about the "bread, butter, cheese and jam".  Laughing cow.  Oh, well.  The bread is the best I've ever eaten.

The fruit plate that comes with breakfast every morning.  Banana, mango, watermelon and a mandarin orange.  Full breakfast is included with my room at the Nam Khan Riverside Hotel.  Always hard to choose - eggs and sausage?  Banana pancake? Mango shake or pineapple shake?  I'm feeling very spoiled.

Manicure gone mad!  Or, a statue in front of a wat.

The wat


Offerings in front of the wat.


One of the buildings on the monastery grounds.  I assume it's either classrooms, dorms or both.

One of the many hotels in town - an old home on the Mekong river, converted and restored.

There are a lot of tourists - this is the height of high season - but if you walk away from Tourist Street (I swear that's the name of the street), you can enjoy some quiet time.


Huge stag horn ferns.

If you click on the photo to make it larger and look carefully, you'll see three women working together on food prep.

Confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers.

Trash bin.  Myanmar, are you paying attention?

Not sure what these are called.  Grave markers?  Photos and dates of birth/death of family members were shown.  On the grounds of a meditation center.

Giant drum.

Another view.  One of the things that I've been enjoying here is walking in the evening and listening to the sounds of chanting and singing of the monks at every wat.

I loved the leaf shape of the metal screen on this window.

A monk. 

Another wat.

Spirit house.  Some are very fancy, some are not (this one is in the latter category.)  A Buddhist friend said they are used to appease angry spirits and keep them out of the house.

Another wat.  I told you there are a lot of them.

MLT, this ones for you.  At the restaurant where I had lunch today you can dine in a tuk tuk.  They swear it is romantic and your relationship will last forever if you dine there.

My view at the restaurant.  The Nam Khan river.

My lunch at the Indestructible Rock Restaurant, which was fabulous.  Lao steak (with garlic, onions and tomato) and the most unusual mashed potatoes (in the bowl) I've ever had.  The combo was delicious.  I also enjoyed the iced coffee.


Not sure what these ladies were doing.  They were clearly working on something - my guess is gathering the tiny cockles I saw at the nearby barbecue place the other night.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Life is Brutal in Luang Prabang

Eating, walking, massages...when will the madness stop?  Yesterday, New Year's Eve, was another tough vacation day.  More leisurely strolling around.  More good food.  More friendly people.  But really, that woman actually expected me to get up and move after an hour foot massage so that she could massage my head and shoulders.  Without assistance?  What am I, an Olympic athlete?  Seriously, between the quiet music, perfect temperature and great massage I was barely able to move.  Luckily, she was patient.  Here are some more photos of Luang Prabang.

I woke late, dawdled around and then enjoyed breakfast on the patio at my hotel with a view of the river.  Best French bread ever.  The mango (not shown) was also perfect,

Now, this would be a taste of home.  I may try this for lunch today.

The main tourist part of  LP is a small peninsula with the Nam Khan river on one side and the Mekong on the other.  Both sides are covered with restaurants, hotels and guest houses.  In the center of each of these tables is a small barbeque.  Buy food on sticks, cook it yourself.  I want one of these in my house.

This restaurant cooks your food for you.  And offers cooking classes, as do many of the restaurants. 

The restaurants are on the river side of the street.  Houses, hotels, etc. are on the other side.  Even though it is high season, there's not much traffic and it's clean and quiet.

The chairs next to me where I got my foot massage.  It is not easy having to test all these massage places but I'm willing to do.  So far I've found the prices are very similar and the services almost identical.

Ok, no more pagoda jokes.  One of the advantages of having UNESCO World Heritage status is having resources and the responsibility to maintain historic buildings, like this beautiful wat. 

People farm on the banks of the river.  It's a steep hike to get from house to crops.

Or boat.

The confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

Sidewalks.  Clean streets, where people drive on the proper side of the road and not on sidewalks.  Mandalay - are you paying attention??

Creative bamboo Christmas tree.

Buddha, in one of the most ornate and beautiful wats I've seen.


Lunch at Croissant d' Or - a liver pate croissant with lots of veggies.  Along with a frappucino, it was about $4.

Nutella and banana crepe - $1.25 and worth every calorie.  That's why I'm walking so much!

Dinner was at a small road-side barbecue place next to the NamKhan Riverside Hotel, where I'm staying.  I chose sticks of mushrooms, squid, green pepper and chicken.  I wanted the cockles but they belonged to the owner. 

You pick your sticks, they cook them.  Eat in or take away.  True fast food that's delicious and healthy (depending on which you choose).

I'm going back tonight for more of the veggies - two kinds of mushrooms, spring onions, peppes and eggplant.

Open air kitchen, on the river.  It's a family operation and they live downstairs from their restaurant.  Two little boys help with the work.  The older boy (about 10) does food prep, putting stuff on sticks.  His little brother used a small pump to blow up the balloons.  I've seen them there working when I walk by after breakfast and still there working when I stop for dinner.  I'm anti child labor but all for kids doing their part in the family.