Friday, November 11, 2011

Yangon Days - Full Moon of Tazaungmone

For weeks now there have been money and kitchen utensil collections in the streets around Yangon, all leading up to the celebration of the Full Moon of Tazaungmone. Apart from it being an auspicious day, I still don't know what it celebrates exactly and my colleague could not explain. She said there would be a lot of monks walking around in the night (I think she meant there would be a weaving ceremony) followed by lots of people making offerings at dawn. So in the same spirit in which I visited Varanasi in India last year (i.e. no idea what is going on, and the feeling that it is not possible to explain without living it) and with no idea of when dawn is, I woke up at 4:00 am to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda to see what all the fuss was about.

Doesn't anyone go to sleep in this country?
Panicking slightly that I had woken up very early for no reason, it quickly became clear something serious was happening when at the foot of the hill taking you up to the northern and western entrances to the Pagoda, the traffic was doubled up and people were pouring out. I weaved my way up on my bike, locked my sandals and bike together to avoid a repetition of the last time I visited a sacred religious site, and forced my way in.

Buddha's breakfast
The place was packed with whole families sleeping on mats, groups sat in the smaller temples chanting, a lot of people doing their individual prayers and offerings of fruit salad to Buddha, and some extreme candle lighting. I couldn't see any weaving, though the Shwedagon is so huge that unless they did in the main area I wouldn't be able to find it.

After three tours round the pagoda, chased by the ladies with the rubbish cart, the whole place momentarily came to life with a long procession of women offering gifts of robes and food led by some bells and a conch horn and even louder chanting to a tune. Even the entrance ticket collectors emerged and caught me out.

And by 5:15am the monks had all woken up and were doing the rounds collecting alms. I had not change on me, nor any fruit salad, so I wasn't able to offer anything although the majority of monks did ask. And so feeling awkward, tired (I had work in 3 1/2 hours), and reflecting that this was the Buddhist equivalent of midnight mass, I cycled home. And now I know that dawn in Myanmar is at about 05:30.

I don't think they had work the next day

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Development as Distraction: The Development Set

Wow. How did I not read this before?

The Development Set, 
by Ross Coggins 1976

Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I'm off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I've had all my shots
I have traveller's checks and pills for the trots!

The Development Set is bright and noble
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes
Our thoughts are always with the masses;

In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
We damn multi-national corporations;
injustice seems easy to protest
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.

We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution --
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.

The language of the Development Set
Stretches the English alphabet;
We use swell words like "epigenetic"
"Micro","macro", and "logarithmetic".

It pleasures us to be esoteric --
It's so intellectually atmospheric!
And although establishments may be unmoved,
Our vocabularies are much improved.

When the talk gets deep and you're feeling numb,
You can keep your shame to a minimum:
To show that you, too, are intelligent
Smugly ask, "Is it really development?"

Or say, "That's fine in practice, but don't you see:
It doesn't work out in theory!"
A few may find this incomprehensible,
But most will admire you as deep and sensible.

Development set homes are extremely chic,
Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
Eye-level photographs subtly assure
That your host is at home with the great and the poor.

Enough of these verses - on with the mission!
Our task is as broad as the human condition!
Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
The poor ye shall always have with you. 

This was written in 1976 and every paragraph I can relate to my professional life in 2011 (the "eye-level photos" line especially stung). I'm not sure I should be surprised as the same tensions that exist in the work of an international development worker must always have been there. So two questions:

  1. Why did noone ever tell me that working in international development would be this way if they already knew, instead leaving me to work it out (and still trying)?
  2. Why must we continue to beat ourselves up so much as development professionals? (stuffexpataidworkerslike being a recent example, which is now scraping the barrel somewhat)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Yangon Days: Getting Around

The first thing I did when I woke up on my first day in Yangon was to put our bikes together. I actually did this instead of preparing breakfast which was a slight source of irritation to my wife. We hadn't had breakfast together in three months.

Astonishingly in Yangon, the roads are incredibly calm, and the cars highly respectful of cyclists. In fact, they are highly respectful of everything which is hard to adjust to: my instinct from cycling in London and Dhaka is to battle on the road, as if it were a computer game and the cars the bad guys. But here, if a car happens to pass through a traffic light on amber, they will stop and reverse back. They all keep to their lanes, and the buses aren’t on suicide missions.

Motorbikes are banned in Yangon though they freely circulate as soon as you exit the city limits, and like in the rest of the region they seem to be the most sensible mode of transport. As usual, there is no official explanation as to the reason why motorbikes are banned in the old capital, though I have been told three different versions:
  • Previously an Enfield Bullet was able to outclass police cars and so was the perfect accessory for any criminal.
  • An engine misfire on a motorbike happened as a General drove past scaring him into thinking that it was a gun-shot.
  • The daughter of one of the generals was kidnapped and the getaway was done on a motorbike.

Whatever the reason, there a signs posted across the city reminding road users that motorbikes are banned, though some occasionally will drift in from outside the city.

Otherwise, trishaws are another way to get around. These are bicycles that have sidecars attached (they don’t even share an axle, so it is literally the bicycle and sidecar stuck together). The outcome is that you have to sit next to the rider in a position that actually has you riding lower which has its own drawbacks: you can’t escape the smell that naturally arises from riding round in the sun all day; you are obliged to note the effort that it takes to cycle your fat arse; and if you are that way inclined you could even have a conversation. But trishaws are painfully slow, and considering the gradients across Yangon are only worth taking when going downhill. Trishaw drivers seem acutely aware of that, and are only willing to cycle a kilometer (at least when I asked), though I did see a woman trishaw driver once. 

Quicker than walking. Just.

Travelling in... Myanmar: Mandalay

The hallowed city of Kipling and Nelly the Elephant, no one could understand why we would actually want to visit Mandalay. The palace was destroyed during WWII and has only since been partially rebuilt, and the pagoda on the top of the famous hill is forgettable considering the competition that there is in country from the Shwedagon etc. Still we decided to go, as it is the second largest city in the country and a good place to get a different perspective from Yangon. But its true: there is no great reason to visit Mandalay itself. What lies around Mandalay is a different story.

The longest teak bridge in the world is U Bein’s Bridge at Amarapura, and approximately 50% of all books written about Myanmar have it somehow incorporated in the cover. In reality it is a very long jetty which people walk across (some sections are also made of concrete, but only a spoilsport would pick up on that point), and whereas it is not a feat of engineering, it at least provides the opportunity to take the same photo a hundred times (bridge with monk walking over it; bridge with fisherwoman walking over it; bridge with man cycling over it etc.).

It's quicker to drive the long way.

Down the road, Saigang is astounding. You cross the Ayeryarwady River, climb the hill going past many pagodas and at the summit you are able to look down across the plains and see what are apparently 100s of other pagodas. This is both visually arresting, and also a great relief as you can enjoy the other pagodas without having to actually visit them (there comes a point when all pagodas start to look the same).

View back down to the Ayeryarwady
And finally the town of Inwa, one of the ancient capitals of the country which lies on an island in the middle of the Ayeryawady River. The local cartel requires that you do a tour of the island in a horse and carriage, which was only marginally less comfortable that the 40 year old Mazda that we used to get between sites. And you go past more temples and pagodas, a sitting Buddha, a leaning tower and a teak monastery.

By this point in the day we'd seen enough temples

And then back to Mandalay. It is said that Kipling never actually visited the place that he wrote his famous poem after. When you’re in town, you can see why that is true.

Development as Distraction: Getting Sick

Notice how when someone gets sick, in a “loose motions”, “Delhi Belly” sense, they pore over all that they have eaten, drunk and everyone they have touched in the previous 24 hours in order to identify where the guilty bacteria came from?

Normally I think this is a futile activity. We’re pretty disgusting creatures as humans, forever touching things and putting our hands on our faces and mouths, so just because you ate a prawn sandwich for lunch on the bus home and then got sick, it does not mean that it was the sandwich that was at fault. But imagine if you had someone photograph your every movement on a day that you did get sick. You could go back and identify the exact moment when you allowed yourself to fall prey to a gastro-intestinal attack.

Often when you visit a project in a developing country, your every movement is photographed by the media officer who is eternally thankful for you having inserted his position in to the budget, even though his job is only to take photographs which no one uses. He also got a laptop, to download all the photos which he uses to surf the internet during all the time that he isn’t taking useless photos. So he really is your friend.

And often when you visit a project in a developing country, there are all kinds of moments when you are liable to touch something that can potentially make you very ill.

Don't try this at home. Or anywhere for that matter.
For example, the above photo is of a visit I undertook earlier this year in Pakistan to a farmer dairy-cooperative project that I helped develop and set-up. The very kind gentleman is sharing with me some special kind of solid-unpasteurised-dairy-milk-curd-product which has come from our very own cooperatives. They even stored it in a re-used plastic shopping bag. I specifically remember when I broke a piece of the unpasteurised lump of maybe-cheese, along with another three people (none of us having washed our hands since leaving our guesthouse that morning and having shaken hands with close to one hundred local farmers in the middle of their jobs since), that this was going to make me sick.

It did. Big time. It never gets properly cold in Southern Punjab, but I had such a strong fever 13 hours after eating that solid-unpasteurised-dairy-milk-curd-product that I was shivering so severely it made my teeth chatter and I had incredibly vivid dreams. To make it worse, the project team had organised a big team dinner that same evening which I had miss with a band, even though they had hosted it in the grounds of the agricultural college I was sleeping in (as a deterrent to terrorists apparently who would never believe that anyone who was not a student would want to live in such an awful dorm). To make it worse, PIA staff were on strike so my flight back to Islamabad the next day was cancelled forcing an 11 hour drive.

In the end, I know it was that moment that made  me sick.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Yangon Days: Ants

A real pain in the arse in Yangon is not having Wikipedia accessible at home. For example: what is the difference between a termite and an ant? My wife swears that based on some novels she read as a child, ants don’t bite: they vomit on you which makes you sore. Termites must bite, as it’s not as if they are vomiting their way through all the wood in our house.

I hope that we aren’t responsible should the house fall down due to termite infestation. They are everywhere, and it’s impossible to control them beyond extreme extermination. The cleaner left the bin touching the wall: a massive trail of ants forges a path, carving their way through three windowpanes, on their way to the feast. A drop of lemon cordial is left on the kitchen surface: ants everywhere. Even worse, I kill a mosquito and let it drop to the floor: ants everywhere carrying the dead body away for dinner.

Sometimes there are trails of ants that just disappear into a hole in the roof, which are the ones that are worrying me. Where are they going? Did someone leave a sandwich somewhere which is being devoured by millions of ants who had to tunnel through several wooden beams and floorboards in order to get dinner? I put a packet of biscuits in the kitchen cupboard which must have had a tiny ant sized hole in it, as when I came back a fortnight later the packet was empty, yet still sealed.

I spray them lots with chemicals, and I set down death powder everytime a new trail emerges, but I know it is futile. The vomiting ones for some reason keep on collecting in groups on the sofa cushions making relaxing there a challenge and the termites are relentless and keep on coming back. Thankfully there are only a couple of large ones, who apart from being quite ugly stand out from the rest and are easier to squash. But will it get better now that the monsoon is over?

It can be tough just trying to get into the kitchen