Two Comments

The views expressed here are the author's. They do not reflect those of CUSO International.
There is a fundraising element associated with my work in Burma. Please click HERE for a link to my fundraising page.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

My last post

Like the sidewalks in Yangon, that do double duty as pedestrian pathway and sewer cover, a volunteer placement has its challenges. 

The sidewalks are often constructed with relatively high sidewalls covered by concrete tiles of four by two feet.  There are often fairly significant gaps engineered in the sidewalk; I think, to accommodate high storm water flow rates during the rainy period.   

Most sidewalks are in various stages of disrepair.  Missing covers are common, cracked ones ubiquitous.  No idle ambling over these Yangon sidewalks.  Vigilance is required, but in the end, they do function to keep pedestrians safely separate from the traffic.
Similarly, a volunteer placement has its challenges, but, in the end, it generally serves its purpose of developing organizational, functional, or analytical capacity in our partner organizations..

Monday, 23 February 2015


Every morning, the 7th floor hallway outside my apartment greets me with a wallop of nauseating air.  The cooler night air has pushed yesterday’s stale air to the top floors of the building where insufficient ventilation allows it to stew.  My landing and that of the 8th floor above us are the end point of a plugged chimney.  At its bottom, there is only a grate over an open combine storm and sanitary sewer and in the dry season, there is little to dilute the sanitary flows. The air quality improves as I walk down the stairs and once I stand outside, the air is pleasant and even refreshing. 

Yangon is not a smelly city, although there are some pungent moments.  There is a functioning garbage collection system, in part privatized to people with pushcarts, who, I think, sort through their haul for recyclables and maybe get paid by weight for what is left over.  It is also not an overly dirty city, although the absence of garbage cans makes littering hard to avoid.  It is affected by the scourge of the plastic bag and container that are left to decompose slowly in corners, ditches and trickling streams.

Yangon is a dusty city.  A car left overnight will collect a fine layer of dust.  My corner of Shan Kone Street and U Wisara features a water tap for cleaning the taxis that are stationed there.  The dust also comes in through the open door of the living room of my apartment.  But less so than on street level.  Our 7th floor elevation may concentrate the smelly air on our landing, it does limit our dust exposure.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Incomprehensible Sound

I spend a lot of time inside incomprehensible sound.  My co-workers chat and make jokes on the way home in the office van.  All kinds of words are shared while I sit there in my linguistic deepfreeze.   One thing that penetrates the curtain of incomprehension is the light tone of the conversation, interspersed with laughter and guffaws.  No surly folks in my commuter van.

One unexpected side benefit of my cocoon of incomprehension is my isolation from commercial messages.  An invocation to buy a lottery ticket has roughly the same value as the bus attendant’s destinations rap.  As yet, the visual commercial messages are muted in Yangon and mostly absent outside of the big city. Religious messages have a slightly different tonal value.  They depend more on ritualized language and ritual sounds differently than commerce:  more repetitive, certainly, but also more plaintive.


The big rivers of Myanmar move enormous amounts of silt.  Their water is brown and their banks muddy.  Some of the land around the Gulf of Motama walks around, with erosion reducing land in some places and sedimentation creating new lands elsewhere.  Both processes create issues.  Reduction of arable land and increased salinization on the one hand and conflicts over land rights on the newly established flats on the other.

The silt also creates a small-scale sand industry. Take a 40 foot wooden boat, build up the sides, add a powerful pump with an associated 10-inch hose system and you are in business. 

To load you sail into the stream and lower your hose to the river bed.  Then you start your engine and pump the sand slurry up and over an on-board sluice to capturing any gravel you may have picked up.  The sand settles in the ship’s hold and the water sloshes over the side back in the river.  As the boat fills with sand and gravel, it settles deeper in the water; you return to shore when only the prow and stern are still visible.   

To unload, you reverse the process:  you pump water into the hold to recreate a slurry and you pump that into a small dyked area.  The sand settles there and the water runs back in the river.  It is high quality sand, fine and uniform in shape.  The gravel less so:  it often needs to be shifted at the ultimate jobsite.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Morning Commute

Many if not most drivers in Yangon have either a pagoda-like ornament on their dashboard or a picture of a monk hanging from their rear view mirror.  Many also have a small garland of flowers hanging from their mirror.  They are sold by street vendors who walk between the cars waiting for a red light.  There is strong votive element in these flowers.

The young, say 30-old, taxi driver this morning took his immersion in Buddhism quite a bit further.  He played music with female voices under a recitation by a male voice, while the LCD screen in his console showed religious images:  a Buddha, Pagodas, and even a map of world religions, centred on what it still called Burma.  He sang along with the female voices.

Coming back from a weekend in Bangkok to renew my Myanmar visa, Yangon and my taxi driver’s immersion in Buddhism strike me as precious.  If Bangkok’s shopping malls around the occasional Wat or palace areYangon’s future, you’d wish for some more of Myanmar’s isolation from the world.  But is that not just nostalgia?