A month at the Phaung Daw Oo School
19th street in Mandalays Dawnabwa Quarter has been my home of the last month. I am beginning to feel quite at home as I get used to how life operates here.
The traffic even though its heavy and chaotic has a general logic that it follows, it’s not absolute carnage as I first thought. Its loud, a constant cacophony of blaring horns but it's how they announce, “I’m here and I’m going forward”. No one ever looks around, only forward, if it’s clear they go. The traffic has grown exponentially in the last few years with cheap Chinese imports of scooters, they suddenly became affordable where previously everyone used bicycles. This meant that the that distance people could travel, the speed at which they could travel - the good and the noise they could make when they traveled and the pollution they could generate - the less good all increased significantly.
It all makes a trip outside of the monastery gate an adventure. You become part of the traffic every time you walk on 19th, slow-moving, without a horn or lights but traffic none the less. There’s no side walk, well there is but that where the street vendors operate. You generally go with the flow, like most of the traffic goes with the flow but there’s a dedicated few who insist on going against it, Mandalay’s traffic anarchists. They will never become part of the herd.
If walking in the traffic is an adventure, crossing the street is the pure adrenaline rush. You start looking at your opportunities, your brain churning the algorithms, calculating your odds for each potential opening. Where’s the break, is it both lanes, can I make it all the way, the longer you wait the more likely you are to opt for potential suicide, the middle. There’s no real middle, no physical line, it's the place where traffic changes direction, like the tide it ebbs and flows, but you can define it if you’re brave, if you're willing to stand there.
There it is, your break, you go but the other side’s suddenly busy, you become that island in the sea of horn blowing traffic. The new middle. No ones going to stop, that not in the rules, there will be no biblical parting of the waves to let you magically finish your journey. The chaotic flow of bikes and scooter and cars and trucks miraculously alter course to avoid the new obstacle; you. Time slows, it feels like an eternity, stood waiting for the next break, your opportunity to go again. Questions start thrashing in your mind; Can everyone see me? Can they avoid me? How long can I stand here? And just as all hope is fading, there it is, the break, your break, your freedom in another few moments and you’re across. You crossed 19th street barely 30 ft of tarmac, it took a mere 10 second and half a life time.
Running in Myanmar has been amazing, I’ve seen so much more by getting up and running the streets early in the morning. Sometimes its hard to run because the sites are so amazing, I just have to stop and take them in.
Here are a few tips from my experience of running in Myanmar in the hot season.
The heat and/or humidity will affect you. Be careful! On your first run don’t plan to go too far. You need to learn how your body copes with the heat. Run a third, no more than half of your typical distance. Know where you are going, take a map or your phone. Take water, you can get though a lot more than you think and dehydration will lead to heat exhaustion or worse.
Run when its coolest, I run early in the morning just after first light, it’s 10C cooler. But in an hour, it can climb 5C, those few degrees make all the difference. I wouldn’t recommend running in the dark, its cooler but a lot of vehicles don’t have or use lights and they aren’t expecting runners.
Road running is more like trail running, the running surface can be very uneven, you are continually adjusting your stride, looking ahead to see where your feet need to go etc. You’ll likely be running on the road so be aware of the traffic, there’s lots of it. I run against the traffic so I can see what’s coming, but lane discipline is slack and a lot of bikes and scooters will go the wrong way on the inside of the lane especially if they are entering or turning off. You have to listen for them, they announce their presence by toting their horns. You get used to judging the distance and direction from the pitch.
There are dogs here, lots of them and most are strays. 1 in 10 will bark at you, 1 in 20 acts aggressively, 1 in a few give chase. Typically, the locals shout at them and they stop, I just ignore them now, they are literally all bark and no bite, so far anyway…...
Clothing, wear it. I run in a vest and shorts, doesn’t matter how hot I keep it on. Respect the locals, they don’t mind shorts but I wouldn’t go near a temple dressed in my running gear. When people swim here they do so fully clothed so ladies, no bra tops, use vests, or a light tee and modest shorts or knee length leggings. I have seen plenty of local female runner in shorts so its not unusual.
Heat exhaustion is bad, heat stroke is really serious. If you are on your own you have to monitor yourself, that’s why I suggest not running too far initially. If you do start to feel the heat (you have a headache or just don’t feel well), stop running, find some shade and ideally get into air conditioned space. In a city like Mandalay that’s not difficult, in the countryside it can be harder. Drink water and get a taxi home. Always take some money with you. Don’t push on in the heat, it saps your energy, here you have to have your wits about you because of all the other distractions.
Afterwards take a shower to cool down, it can take some time for the body to cool off. Getting a cold shower isn’t always easy.
A final word - Ear buds - choice is yours, I don’t and wouldn’t. Your two main senses when you run are sight and hearing why deprive yourself of one, especially in a place where the sound is so important.
I wanted to travel light, with all the issues in Alberta at the moment I’m looking hard at why I need to earn what I earn, to have all the stuff I have. Is it making my life easier? The simple answer is probably not.
There's no time like the present to start minimising; This is what I have;
For travelling here (to look smart on the plane to hopefully get up graded). One jacket, one thin sweater, one pair of long pants, a leather belt and a pair of socks in case my feet get cold
Being in Myanmar; I should preface I’m basically going to be in Mandalay in the summer, I’m not planning on big hikes in the hills or the like
Clothes - 3 short sleeved shirts, 3 tee-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of swimming trunks, 4 pairs of underwear, one sunhat, one longyi (local skirt that the men where). One pair of sandles and one pair of flip flops. 2 cotton handerchiefs (clothes).
Running kit; one vest, one pair of shorts, 2 pairs of running socks, one pair of running shoes, a running cap
Wash kit – toothbrush and paste, 3 lip salves, tea tree oil, antibiotic cream, a soap, shampoo, factor 45 sunscreen, bug spray, deodorant, foot scrubber, vitamins for a month, one big travel towel and one really small one, water purifying drops, small hand cream, one small first aid kit (mainly sticking plasters)
Electronics; Unlocked cell phone with charger/cable and ear buds, laptop with charger, camera and charger/cable and case, android cable, 2 memory sticks, multi-county socket adapter
Art Stuff; Sketching pencils, pastel pencils, small box of pastels, small water colors, 3 sketch books, pastel pad and loose sheets
Miscellaneous; Mosquito net, 2 pairs of sunglasses, 3 pairs of reading glasses, 8 rollerball pens, one head torch, lots of post-it notes, one note book, swiss army knife, 4 string bags to keep stuff together, one 40 litre back pack (from 25 years ago), a courier bag for carry on and one local Myanmar hand bag
Paperback books; Lonely Planet Myanmar Guide and Phase book, Ken Robinson “The Element”, Robert Macfarlane “Mountains of the Mind”, Colin Wright “Some thoughts about relationships”, and 3 by The Minimalists “Minimalism Living a meaningful life”, “Essential Essays by The Minimalists” and “Everything that remains”
And this is what I’ve used to date
For travelling here; Even though I looked exceedingly dapper in my jacket and slacks I didn’t up graded. Used the stuff again on the over night bus from Yangon to Mandalay, will use it on the way home. Would bring again jeans and the sweater, don’t anticipate getting upgraded. Haven’t used the socks
Being in Myanmar; Its hot and humid some days in low 40’s - Had a cool day with rain
Clothes - Shirts - I wear for two days at time then wash, tee shirts – no typically, it's just to hot, I find them too clammy. BUT we had one cool day (28C) where I wore a tee under my shirt and I had to wear something other than a shirt to wash them - discovered a washing machine. Lost a flip flop assume to a dog, they only took one and there aren’t any one-legged students with size 45 feet here, replaced with local pair for $3. Shorts occasionally but they need to be below the knee to visit temples so I generally where the longyi, in fact I bought a second out of lighter (cooler material). Underwear yes but thinking of going commando as most people do. Sandals useful if your feet get blistered from the flip flops otherwise a pain to take on and off, mine have a heel strap.
Running kit; Used it all, wash it when I shower after a run, its very sweaty here! It is becoming a little unpleasant but I have discovered the washing machine so I'm hoping that will solve the problem :)
Wash kit – Used the obvious, toothbrush etc, haven’t used much sun screen, deodorant. No lip salve (I have 3!!!), no hand cream, the antibiotic cream on my foot for cracked skin. Bug spray leaked on the way, what a mess, next time I’ll put it in a plastic bag. Good advice put all liquids in a plastic bag or two.
Electronics; Used it all, have two local SIM cards, there’s not much wi-fi so having to use data. I get though about 500mb a day, two things research for my work here and blogging. A volunteer has lent me a 150 mbps hotspot doogle otherwise I used my phone as a hotspot. Haven’t used the socket adapter much the wall sockets here are multipurpose you can plug anything in as long as it accepts 220v. Just come from Pyin Oo Lwin where I did use it they don’t have the multi-country sockets we have in Mandalay.
Art Stuff; Have done some, nothing like as much as I expected. I’ve been busy with work, especially now I teach in the evenings and blogging is time consuming. Also, drawing in the heat is tough. Did some in Bagan, but I haven’t done much plein air before – here probably wasn’t the place to start.
Miscellaneous; The school provided a mosquito net so haven’t used mine. Haven’t used the sunglasses much, just scratched them, glad they were cheap. The reading glasses 1 pair so far, again getting scratched will move on to the next pair. Head torch was broken, fixed it with an elastic band but should have checked before I left. The bug spray managed to melt the plastic of the swiss army knife when it leaked, not good its now has a very textured handle. The backpack has taken a beating again from the bug spray. Use the local bag all the time, it great although I have had to have it repaired a few times at the school by the tailoring team. Had to buy a waterproof phone bag, it was ThinGyan - Myanmar New Year and water festival time.
Paperback books; Ken Robinson “The Element” - read, Robert Macfarlane “Mountains of the Mind”, Colin Wright “Some thoughts about relationships” - read, and 3 by The Minimalists “Minimalism Living a meaningful life”- read, “Essential Essays by The Minimalists” – read and “Everything that remains”. I haven’t read as much as I expected, same as done as much art, sort of saving these books for the return flight, 18 hours of flying and I have a very long lay over in Beijing (although I think I can get a transit visa and visit Beijing, I have 9 hours there).
Still not convinced I need a kindle, I like paper.
So far there’s nothing that I could have easily brought that I have missed. It all fit nicely into my backpack and courier satchel (for carry on). From a work perspective more pens, paper, my scale rules, colour pencils etc would have been useful. Minimalism is OK!
Days start early. I join the Mandalay morning exercise crowd, for a run around the square of the old palace moat. I thought I’d be alone, but that’s not case. There are individuals, couples, groups, old and young, thin and not so thin, walking, running, cycling, stretching, practicing tai-chi, doing aerobics to loud, crackly k-pop music. Everyone is here for the cool morning air, there’s an hour before the golden red sunrise morphs into the heat of the day. Use it or lose it, is the motto.
I have breakfast at the teahouse across from the school. A fired egg or two with rice, chilly and fermented sour green mango pickle and green tea usually. I’ve given up on coffee in the morning. The local brew condensed milk, sugar and coffee – diabetes in a cup, it's just too sweet. The locals love it.
The heat's tolerable until 9, after that it gets hot.
Lunch is anytime from 11.30 to 1, depending on who I’m with. The Myanmar guys at the school like to eat early, 11.30 is late for them, we eat above the outside kitchen. Its hot and smoky from the cooking fire. The food is good, curry, some vegetables, spinach, chard sometimes mushrooms, all local and fresh, rice, more sour pickles, chillies, and a thin sour broth. They love sour here as well, it's the yang of their sweet. If I eat with the volunteers, its later, after the Monks. Similar food but inside, I prefer outside.
That’s typically the food for the day, over by 1 pm, nothing until the 7am the next morning. It was a shock at first but its OK, I feel really healthy on it. People seem generally healthy. There’s the classic east-west flip here, the “biggest” people are often the wealthiest, they can afford the “western” food - the opposite of the west.
It starts to cool around 4, enough to venture out. I go for a walk, usually ending up at western style supermarket with café, they sell plain unadulterated black coffee, my one indulgence.
I’ve taken over the English conversation class in the evening. We talk about a lot, anything and everything, I'm learning so much. Recently we listened to a CBC podcast on why Pandas are black and white. A 7 minute program took two hours of discussions in English interspersed with Burmese on the meaning of herbivore, omnivore, carnivore, hibernation (which they had never heard of - animals don't hibernate here - why would they?), species, camouflage, then on to dolphins, hyenas, vision, climate change, cuteness, diet. If you ever get the chance to teach English I highly recommend it.
We finish with half an hour’s yoga, chanting Pali, the ancient Buddhist language to keep time. They laugh at me because the I can’t touch my toes, not even close. They just flop over, even the 75-year-old Principal. They say a flexible body is the sign of flexible mind – that’s rather scary!
In between I do some work on the new campus…………………….honestly.
If you are interested I posted a video of my morning run around the Moat at Instragram @matthewmakerart
I’m at the Phaung Daw Oo school (Pound door oo), run by a larger than life Principal Sayadaw U Nayaka, a sprightly 75-year-old orange robed monk with contagious smile. He started the school 25 years ago with 10 teachers and 400 students under the trees, as he had nowhere else. His goal was and is to provide education to poor and underprivileged students, who for various reasons are unable to attend state schools. In 2016/17 they educated 8502 students and have 9865 enrolled for the next. In addition, they train several hundred teachers each year to work in the monastic system. The existing school complex is literally bursting at the seams.
The plan is to build a new campus on a 180 hectares of donated land NW of the city in the foothills of the Taung Kyun Forest. Like all great projects it has a deadline, next May they plan to host the 2018 Monastic Schools yearly convention, 2000 delegates from all over Myanmar will descend on the campus. They will need to be housed, feed and have somewhere meet. Today there is one bamboo building, no electricity and a no permanent road to the site. It's an ambitious plan by any stretch of the imagination. Initially I didn’t believe it was achievable but I then learnt that the new capital, Naypyidaw, was constructed in 5 years; from green fields to a metropolis of nearly a million people. They build quickly here!
U Nayaka is one of life’s eternal optimists – somehow what he needs generally shows up. To some extent that’s me. Two months ago my only knowledge of Myanmar was that my grandfather had served here in the Second World War. I'm now writing about being here!
The challenges working here are numerous, basic services that I take for granted don’t exist, there’s no copier for instance. The only printer is a small black and white inkjet, but printer quality paper is so expensive it's not used much. I come from a world were copying, colour prints and paper are used as if they are limitless.
We had little base information, there is no topographical survey, the school has no budget to get a survey. I am learning to be far more ingenious. We are using google earth photos and a site visit as the basis for the design. By necessity the plan will be more a concept than a typical final master plan. There will be lots of adaptation by the site team as they implement it, but that how it works here.
It's a huge learning experience, being submerged not only in a different culture but one with very different tolerance levels to many of my values. And it's thought provoking to see how people live and work with so much less. But they still move forward and the're smiling.
Myanmar is famous for a few things; it's golden pagodas and temples, the hot and humid weather, but mainly as the worlds most generous people for the last 3 years according to the World Giving Index (they were second the year before that). Its a remarkable feat considering the average income is equivalent to $6000 USD per annum, the next 3 most generous countries the USA, Australia and New Zealand have average incomes that exceed Myanmar by at least six to one. From what I've seen they are a very generous nation.
Using my own index - the stray dog (SDi); looking for the mangy, the nearly dead, the skin and bone wrecks of dogs you often see abroad, there aren’t any here. Most dogs are pretty healthy, people go out of their way to feed them and yes there’s lots of them. And it’s the same for less fortunate people. That’s not to say there is no poverty, there is plenty of it. But there’s a very visible culture of sharing at play.
Buddhism seems to be more a way of life, a culture over simply a religion. It’s deeply ingrained in the ethos of the place, everyone follows it, somehow the people really do “love thy neighbour”. Part of it must be the monastic system, there are half a million monks in Myanmar (1% of the population), all Buddhist males are expected to serve as novice monks, twice – a two year period in their teens and again in the twenties. As a monk, you have nothing except robes and sandals, you relay on the community to feed and support you. In return you provide help and guidance back. All I can say is it works even though the economy is not stellar.
100 years ago, Myanmar then Burma was considered the strongest Asian Tiger economy. Its was expected it would lead the region. But something went wrong, long before the 1962 military coup. It’s now the poorest performing economy in the region, by western measures of GDP etc. But perhaps that’s been its redeeming quality? Had it been the leading economy would it still have the title worlds most generous nation? I can’t help feeling that this real sharing economy would have struggled to survive against the competitive forces of global consumerism.
Firstly, apologies to any millennials or computer savvy pre-millennials, this post is about my experience setting up this blog site. I’m part of the Generation X cohort that has avidly avoided social media. Until a 2 weeks ago I didn’t use Facebook, Instagram barely, a twitter account nope and snapchat err? Get the picture? Sure, I can use a smart phone, until recently I signed every text “Matthew” so people knew it was from me. My millennial daughter pointed out “its not necessary its your message from your phone from YOU!”
The idea of blogging – just wouldn’t go away. It kept popping up, like an irritating drip, in the end you just have fix it. It was easier to say yes than to avoid it any longer. This trip would be a great opportunity to start.
The first part wasn’t difficult, using my LinkedIn network to get the message out, was not hard. Pressing the “publish button” on the other hand was another story. Angst, self doubt, is my story interesting, can I even write? (I’ve learnt punctuation is not my strong point).
Then where do you publish a blog? I have Instagram.com/matthewmakerart for my artwork (www.makerart.ca). But its for pictures, hence I started a Facebook page. Then a friend said, “do you really want to mix business with pleasure”, for this trip it's not an issue but in the future? Good point. Their recommendation, set up a blogsite. That’s where things started to go astray. It was Saturday night and I was due to fly in 12 hours, like all ADD afflicted project managers I decided to set it up there and then, why not! I actually had a domain name, I’d had it for a long time and quite remarkably it had expired that week. I’d spent hours getting it back and to cut a long story short I owned it again but it wasn’t quite where I thought it was.
During that evening, as well drinking a bottle of wine (stress) I managed to spend $380 USD on hosting at two sites and software, none of which I needed. By the middle of the week, I’d reclaimed most of it and best of all had a blogsite. The site had a host whom I was now in constant time lagged dialog with trying to resolve my issues. This is where my previous point about the domain not being quite where I thought it was came back to haunt me. Somehow, I had the domain in two accounts, they were interfering with each other. What I saw as I developed was different from what was published, again and again.
Finally, the blogsite looked good, the first post was up. I just wanted to add a few pictures but of course nothings free. The free hosting service had a storage limit but for a mere $120 I could post photos! There are photos.
My advice, get things like your site sorted before you go. Different continents, with different time zones, local internet connections can be a little testing to say the least. And off course there’s still the publish button…….
Myanmar is not near Canada by any stretch of the imagination. Be it physically or culturally.
My journey started on Sunday with a quick flight to Vancouver from Calgary. A three hour layover for my final western meal before the long haul to Beijing and leaving North America far behind. I took this time to finish the book “The Element” by educator Ken Robinson (one of the most highly viewed TED talks ever Ken Robinson . Maker Education ties in with his theories, at least that’s what I’m going to try to do with the curriculum. It must be developed to ensure the students are engaged - this type of program will be hard to pull-off if we can’t get the students 110% engaged. The whole principle depends on that.
Beijing to Yangon was uneventful, landed 40 minutes late, that’s it. Desmond the taxi driver took me to the City Star hotel in downtown Yangon. It was hot 28C, Calgary was 4C when I left 26 hours ago. Texted with my family which seems crazy, I’d traveled in this region 25 years ago with my wife. Back then, mail and the occasional telephone call every 3 or 4 months were the only communications we had. Now I was holding a conversation as if the 7500 miles weren’t there!
My day was spent in Yangon, visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda. Its a mass of golden pagoda's with different Buddha specializing in specific wishes. I wished at the hair loss Buddha for more hair, will report back on hair Buddha’s progress in a few weeks. Saw the ruby Buddha on TV, allegedly it’s so powerful that once a man wished to become king, he asked the ruby Buddha for help and succeeded. As the new king he ensured the ruby Buddha was not seen again until the advent of TV!
Tuesday night was the final stage, the bus journey from Yangon to Mandalay, quite the journey. Like many parts of the world, the traffic here is heavy and crazy. The main rules seems to be only look forward. They drive on the right, the same as Canada but import thousands of left hand drive cars from Japan. Drivers can't easily see to overtake, but it doesn't seem to hinder them. How we didn’t crash or kill multiple pedestrians is beyond me. The bus terminus was a small industrial unit, for some reason I’d expected some massive colonial edifice, but instead just a tiny room with lots of people. The atmosphere erupted each time a bus left, they have to reverse out of the lot, everyone and I mean everyone has to get involved. The noise level exploded each and every time, then once the bus was gone and the usual, quieter chaos returned.
The roads are NOT smooth, the buses are modern, luxury buses but the ride is rough. They are toll roads so I assume there new or at least newish. It was dark… I’d love to see them in the day just to see why the journey was so bumpy. It was a long way - 8 hours, with a stop at Shwe Pyi 115 Miles, a Myanmarmise transport cafe for a meal and the toilet. The food was good, hard to order though, lots of pointing, haven’t got the ear for Myanmarmise yet. Then back to the bumpy, unforgiving bus. Hours later and finally we were here, Mandalay, my new home for the next month.