Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Stuff I've Noticed in Mandalay

The other day I took the 10 minute ($4) cab ride to the grocery store.  I had a relaxing Friday night planned and just needed a few dinner ingredients to make it perfect.

I enjoy using the rides in the cab to both talk to the drivers as well as watch the world going by the window.  The streets, which I've seen at 6:00 a.m, and 9:00 p.m. as well as times in between are invariably busy.  Crowds riding motorcycles, bikes, driving cars and trucks and walking.  Open air shops and restaurants full of people.  Workers in small open air workshops building furniture.

I've still seen only a very limited amount of Mandalay because of the limited transportation but each time I'm in town I love looking at the details.  Here are some things that I've noticed:

Less than a block from Citi Mart, where I like to grocery shop, is a billboard advertising scholarship opportunities.  I was surprised to see that the University of South Florida was one of the schools involved.  When I get home I'll have to see if I can connect with Myanmar students in FL.

Many of the small clothing/tailor shops have mannequins on the "sidewalk" in front of their stores. I put sidewalk in quotes because it is frequently so cracked and pitted that it is barely walkable.  Anyway, in front of the stores are mannequins.  My favorites are the blue ones which look like aliens.

I'm still amazed at the number of passengers who perch on the backs of motorcycles while not hanging on in any way.  I really can't begin to describe the chaotic traffic and how often drivers have to slam on their brakes or swerve.  I think they have velcro on their butts to keep them on.

Last night I was at Diamond Center, which houses restaurants, shopping and Ocean, which is like a mini version of Super Target.  The excitement of shopping there is always leaving the mall to cross the street to our school bus.  There are no traffic signals.  Pedestrians do not have right of way.  Traffic is fast and scary.  It doesn't help that it was dark and many of the motorcycles either don't have or use lights.

The traffic seemed a bit heavier than usual last night as I waited to cross with two large, heavy bags.  Or perhaps my nerves just weren't up to it.  I like to wait until there's a slight break in traffic and then step out in front of motorcycles instead of cars.  My theory is if they hit me, it won't hurt as much.

I waited so long yesterday that a local woman and her young child joined me.  When I stepped out, she stepped out.  I think she figured that at my size I could stop any oncoming traffic.  We made it through two lanes and then had to stop in the center of the road to wait for a break in the next two lanes of traffic.  We were standing on the solid yellow center line which is about 4 inches wide.  Traffic zipped by in front and behind, leaving us buffeted in their wake.  I've gotten used to this wait and try not to focus on my vulnerability while standing there. 

I was doing fine with my two companions at my side until I looked to my right and saw headlights coming toward me.  Directly toward me because the driver of the car was straddling the center line. If I stepped forward, I'd walk directly into a passing car.  Same with stepping backward.  I held my ground and just watched the headlights get closer.  About 5 feet away from me, the car veered into his own lane, cutting off a motorcycle, which slid into the lane closest to the curb, which cut off two motorcycles, one of whom ended up on the sidewalk, the other slamming on his brakes.  There was much horn honking and yelling.

I just continued waiting for a few seconds and then slowly stepped into on-coming traffic and crossed.

All my life I wished for the excitement of travel.  This was not what I had in mind.  But I made it home safe and sound.  Past the alien mannequins, past the beautifully lit pagodas, past the smells and sounds of a community which embraces spices and outdoors. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Daily Life in Mandalay

Every place I’ve been, there have been cell phones.   Farmers in Malawi have them.  Teachers in Samoa have them.  Young kids in America have them.  In Mandalay, they don’t have them.  Yes, they exist here, but they are expensive.  $300 for the cheapest phone, $300 for a SIM card.  I heard the prices will be coming down, but they would have to come WAY down before I’ll invest in one.

My apartment smells like poop.  And it’s not because of anything I did.  It doesn’t always smell this way, but occasionally, there’s a definite odor of sewage.  Apparently it comes from the drains.  Someone suggested I use incense but then it would just smell like shitcense.

I took my first spin on a motorcycle.  Admittedly it was just circling the drive in front of the school, but I did ok.  With a little practice, I’ll be ready to hit the road.  But I have some concerns.  Traffic here is crazy – people driving the wrong way down the street.  People making random turns.  There is no insurance.  The nearest healthcare for any even moderately serious issue is Bangkok.  Several other teachers have been in accidents.  Sometimes their fault, sometimes not.  While I want the freedom a bike would give, I’m worried about getting hurt.  I have to climb stairs to my apartment and my classroom.  If I end up on crutches I’d have a tough time.  Right now I’m leaning toward getting a motorcycle to use to tool around the countryside and stick with taxis in the city.

Wait until you see the new paint job on the front doors to my classroom.  They used to be beige.   My class is officially “First Grade Yellow”.  There’s also First Grade Red and First Grade Blue.  The first week of school we decided to name our class.  The kids created a list of yellow things then voted and selected Sunflowers.   I was relieved, since some of the other options were PE Uniforms (theirs are yellow), shoe and cheese.  The door is now painted like a field of sunflowers.  It is beautiful!

It’s now Thursday evening.  After another trip into town last night to shop, I won’t be riding a motorcycle in town.  That will significantly limit my mobility but the traffic is simply too horrendous and dangerous.  At one point last night I was looking out the window of the bus at the family of four riding on a motor bike next to me.  Then a truck swung into their lane and they were almost crushed between our bus and the truck.  Not enough room to move ahead to get away and barely enough room to slam on the brakes and miss being squished to death.  That kind of thing is common. 

At one point there were at least 30 motorcycles stopped in the middle of an intersection – trying to either get across or turn left into the lane that was trying to get across.  Many were facing on-coming traffic, which included our bus, heading at them and not slowing.  They had nowhere to go to get out of the way.  Even if I could manage it without incident, I’d be a nervous wreck.  My decision was confirmed when I got home.  Walking upstairs to my apartment I tripped on the last step and went down on all fours, with my groceries scattered about.  I think it was God saying “Dummy, you can barely walk, do you really want to try to take it to another level?”

I’ve looked for a couple of items at three different stores and haven’t found them.  Flour  and maple syrup.  I didn’t expect it to be real maple syrup.  Or even good maple syrup.  Just some kind of Karo thing, since French toast is one of my go-to meals when I’m too pooped to cook.

The other thing?  Flour.  I know they have it because they have bakeries.  Where they sell tasty ├ęclairs for $.50.  And whole wheat bread.  So they must have flour.  Several of the other teachers share my fondness for Mexican food.  One kind gent even said he’d share a can of refried beans which he got in Bangkok.  We have all the ingredients for guacamole and salsa and they’re easy to make.  I could whip up some flour tortillas if I could find flour.  Plus, the guys checking out at the store in front of me had some peppers that looked like a cross between poblanos and cubanelles.  I’ll check those out next trip to the store.

I’m ¼ of the way through next week’s lesson plans, which should mean I won’t spend all day Saturday working.  That would be nice.  I plan to hire the tuktuk driver I heard about and see how that goes.  It’s amazing that I’ve been here almost 3 weeks and still have seen so little of anything but my classroom.  It’s been fine, especially when I first arrived and was both sick and jet lagged, but now I’m ready to play tourist.

Well, I’m officially angry and frustrated at the school this morning.  I overslept a bit this morning.  I like to be up by 6 at the latest so I can get dressed and have breakfast and still be out the door by 6:30.  This morning I didn’t wake up until 6:15 and rushed to get out by 6:35.  That may seem fast to some, considering that involves showering, blow drying, makeup and dressing but when one is a natural beauty it can be done quickly.

I was happy to arrive at school before the rain started.  Only 6:45, no one else there on the internet so I could get some work done.  Possibly even get a lot of next week’s lesson plans finished.  I have a routine in the classroom – first I turn on the power.  Next is the air conditioning, since even though it’s only about 80 at that time of day, the room is warm and stuffy.  Next I turn on the computer and log in.  While the computer does that, I fill my Hard Rock water bottle.  Today I brought a special treat of lime juice powder to add to the water.  It’s surprisingly tasty and refreshing, although I’m sure it’s mostly sugar.

All was going well.  Typical morning.  Until I tried to log in.  I got a message that my account had been disabled and I should check with the administrator.  That means I can’t access the shared drive which has all the work the students will be doing today, the videos for the dance routines I use to transition from one subject to another and my unfinished lesson plans.  It also means no access to the internet.  Yesterday Yahoo kindly blocked my account, apparently because someone in Myanmar was trying to access it.  Oh, that would be me.  I had to wait 24 hours to access it.  That would be this morning.

Internet is spotty here, it’s a country wide issue.  At the school it is pretty much unavailable after about 10:00 a.m. because there are too many users.  I could come in late at night or really early in the morning to have enough time on the internet but they turn the servers off.

I’m fine with getting in at 6:30 am six days a week so I can have internet access and do my prep work (downloading materials, etc.)  But when I’m blocked from doing that, with no warning, it pisses me off.

I suspect I was blocked because yesterday I asked the IT guy for help in installing the most current version of the VLC media player so I could watch the videos stored on the shared computer in the lounge in our apartment building.  When he tried to do it, he found a virus on my external hard drive.  Since that drive was fine before I got here and I’ve only used it on the computer in my classroom and the one in the lounge, it seems I had to get it here.  He said he would come to the apartment to check out the computer there.  When I arrived he was gone and the computer was gone with him. 

Since I’d agreed not to use my infected hard drive until we could resolve the issue (it looks like he’s going to have to reformat it which could mean losing everything on it), I’m not sure why he blocked access to my account.   All I know is I could still be in bed, listening to the rain instead of sitting in the classroom with no access to any materials.  Grrrr.

By the way, my sunflower door is finally complete.  It really is beautiful and the art teacher put a lot of time into it.  As a thank you, the kids wrote thank you letters and I gave her a chocolate bar.  She was thrilled.  Chocolate is relatively expensive here ($2.50 for a Cadbury bar) and what young woman doesn’t like chocolate? 
Birthdays!  I’d been warned about impromptu birthday celebrations.  Parents (or their servants) will drop off a cake and expect everything to stop for a birthday celebration that might last an hour.  Plus leave the kids on a sugar high for the rest of the day, since the cakes normally arrive shortly after the start of school.

Yesterday was the birthday of one of the kids and I was prepared.  I wrote “Happy Birthday, Joseph” in giant letters on the white board and drew balloons.  I mentally adjusted the lesson plans to account for the change.  When Joseph arrived, he seemed a little embarrassed to tell me that there would only be a party after school.  No cake.  I was relieved but also a bit disappointed.  No cake.

Later in the day I had the kids line up in order of their birthdays so we could have a list and anticipate the impromptu parties.  It went well over all but they are first graders.  One little boy knew his birthday is in August but didn’t know what day.  Another boy, when I asked what day his birthday was, excitedly yelled “Tuesday!”  “This Tuesday?”  I asked.  “No, December Tuesday!”  Okay, then.

Speaking of birthdays, isn’t it funny that one of the girls and I share a birthday.  Halloween.  I had a job once where there were four of us working together.  It was a newly formed group and the job I moved to Florida to take.  I was a bit surprised when I walked into the office the first morning that the first thing anyone said to me was “When’s your birthday?”  When I said Halloween my three new co-workers started howling.  It seems that three of the four of us were born on Halloween.  We decided that was the criteria used in the selection process.  They let the fourth guy in just so it wouldn’t look like discrimination.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Photos of Mandalay from the Ayeyarwaddi International School

We are Grade 1 Yellow.  The class voted that we be the Sunflowers.  The art teacher with help from my asst. teacher replaced the beige door with the field of sunflowers.  This morning when I got to school, there was a butterfly perched on one of the flowers.

Sunset from my apartment building.

View of my apartment building from the roof of the school.

Looking east, toward the hills and rice paddies.  Taken from the roof of the school.  We're on the edge of town, about a 15 minute drive from downtown.

Our competition - another international school, just across the road.  Education is highly valued here.

View toward town.

If you look on the low hill on the right you can see a gold pagoda.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Photos of Arrival in Mandalay

Sorry, most of these were taken from the truck.

There are pagodas everywhere.  They are places where Buddhists go to pray and make offerings (food, flowers, etc.)

Not the kind of scenery I expected.  I was expecting more tropical.  But then again, we're just going into the rainy season.

Driving into Mandalay

EVERYONE rides scooters.  Most women ride side saddle because they wear long, tight wrap around skirts.  Exactly like lava lavas, but floor length.

Mandalay has over a million people and no apparent traffic control.

Another pagoda.

Jeeps seem to be the "cool" car.  This one is plain but I saw several that were pimped out.

Nuns - young girls.  They are carrying bowls because each morning they beg for alms, which is their only food for the day.  It is considered a blessing to give them food.

Another Jeep.

My first glimpse of the school.

My apartment building - brand new.  It sits at the back of the gated school compound.  If I stay another year, I'll get one of the corner rooms which are a bit larger and have windows on two sides.

My bed, which is quite comfortable.  Fanciest mosquito net I've ever seen.

My kitchen.  Those who know me know I HATE having stuff on my kitchen counters!

My fridge is on the right.  On the left is my "closet" alcove and the bathroom.

Best shower, ever.  I'm not wild about the whole bathroom floor getting wet but the space, water pressure and hot water are awesome.

My closet.  That's the bathroom door on the left.


Local beer.

Photos of the Trip and Arrival in Mandalay

Sorry for not posting sooner but between the continuing cold, trying to stay one step ahead of 30 first graders and just getting settled, I've been too pooped to write.  Here are a few photos I took on arrival.  I promise more will be coming soon!

$28 dollar a night hotel in Bangkok.  That includes all amenities, free ride to airport and breakfast. 

In-room Thai massage, less than $10

Room service - my breakfast of green chicken curry.  $2.50

Durian - the stinky fruit

The people in front of me in line at the Bangkok airport.  A very modern, very large, very nice airport.

Arrival in Mandalay.  Less than 2 hours from Bangkok.

Mandalay airport.

Leaving the airport - this is a divided highway.  Sadly, lots of litter.

Village along the road to Mandalay.