They joined the State Department not to long ago and packed off for their first post in Rangoon (or Yangon). I’ve actually been dying to get her to share her story since pretty much the day they arrived. Keep reading to see that this is the stuff of State Department lore – adventures every day. And the fact that they have three small children doesn’t slow them down a single bit – that’s perhaps my favorite part, and they are a true inspiration that way. In fact, for their first larger trip, they packed them all up for Borneo… Life for them is not without it’s difficulties to be sure but they embrace both the life of their post and a life of diplomacy in a way you don’t see too often these days anymore. Jennifer’s nacent blog, East of Ordinary, is just getting going, but my real question here is when do their memoirs come out? Because these little snippets below tell me that there are more pages of adventures just waiting to be told…
whatever suits your political sensibilities)
everyone is so welcoming and friendly and smiling. I have never encountered another group of
people as pleasant, hard-working and honest as the Myanmar. Some speculate it’s their Buddhist tendencies
– the need to make good merits in this life to advance towards
enlightenment. Whatever the sociology
behind it, it just makes for a very pleasant place to spend your days.
weekend at Rangoon, what does the weekend look like?
fueling stop for mohinga – the ubiquitous national breakfast food. A soup full of fermented fish broth, rice
noodles and fried, crunchy veggies that will leave you satisfied for
hours. Then it’s a walking tour of
downtown, before the heat sets in.
Decades of isolation have left picturesque colonial buildings
intact. You can spend hours just
observing street life here – there are so many layers moving at once! The shaven solemn monks with their open alms
bowls, who file past the ladies tending to toddlers while perched atop their
heaps of mangoes and pomelos, which spill out into the road that’s choking with
ancient taxis and rail-thin trishaw drivers, all parading past the backdrop of
a glimmering, shimmering pagoda from which monastic chanting is ever
Thein Phyu St to find Monsoon Restaurant, a very popular local establishment
serving a variety of Southeast Asian cuisines in the comfort of air-con and
with lovely fresh juices. Before
leaving, pop next door to Pomelo, an excellent fair trade-type shop that sells
unique, high-quality goods produced by local artisans. Next a stroll through Bogoyke Market is in
order – you can get disoriented quickly in this labyrinth of Myanmar
treasures. Unique textiles and
beautiful, inexpensive gems are plentiful.
Look for the handmade marionettes from Mandalay or the miniature
sandalwood carvings of monks. Gorgeous
local art can be had for very little.
a tea shop (usually simple plastic table and chairs set on a sidewalk) to enjoy
an afternoon tea – typically the very bitter brew is balanced with super sweet
condensed milk. This will recharge you
before a sunset tour of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
This place sparkles any time of day (literally, its covered in gold),
but it really glows at dusk as light bounces around the hundreds of stupas and
dutiful pilgrims sweep the marble precinct.
The mountainous form of the main stupa is impressive enough – but don’t
neglect the dozens of smaller shrines, all with their own style and
you must try pomelo and gin thoke.
Pomelo is a delectable cousin of the grapefruit – a delicate balance of
sweet with just a touch of tang. It’s so
incredibly refreshing on those days it feels as if you’re being microwaved by
the heat. Gin thoke literally means
ginger salad – a refreshing palate cleanser bursting with flavors ; a mélange
of crunchy peanuts, crispy shredded cabbage, sliced ginger, handful of tiny
dried shrimps (national seasoning) and a squeeze of lime.
slip on a longyi – the national dress that both men and women
still wear on a daily basis. Essentially
it’s a floor-length tube of fabric that gets tucked (ladies) or tied (men). You can identify the origin of the fabric by
its pattern – geometric Mon, rainbow-colored Kachin, silky with a
touch-of-iridescence Rakhine, all of them gorgeous. The women look so elegant in their
conservative, but shapely outfits sparkling with rhinestones and ethnic weavings. My husband loves his own longyi lounging time
learning about the culture or things to do/experience while you’re at your post
enjoy our embassy’s weekly newsletter – they stuff it full of relevant
information, both upcoming events and cultural insights. The Golden Guide to
Yangon serves as a yellow pages for the expat crowd – invaluable during those
first few dizzying months and available at any expat hotspot. A Yahoo group, Yangon Expat Connection, is
also a great resource and sounding board.
pollution and lack of medical care. When
a nagging cough won’t go away or a child tumbles from her bike, my first
thought is not “oh, poor baby!” but “oh!
That’s a medevac to Bangkok!”.
Seriously, we’ve stayed relevantly healthy but have caught bronchitis a
few times, a GI parasite, and a recalcitrant skin infection. Wash your hands, people.
many road trips around the country while here – something that was unheard of
just a few years ago. We drove to Bagan, the mythical ancient city brimming
with thousands of temples and stupas, a landscape of which rivals Angkor Wat.
On the way, we overnighted in Naypyitaw – the capital of Myanmar (and you
thought Yangon was the capital, eh?).
Constructed around 2007 under complete secrecy by a paranoid junta, this
city was completely off-limits until very recently. And here we were, driving past the parliament
building (it’s a castle with a moat… no, really) on an empty 18-lane highway,
stopping to take pictures without attracting any attention. We also drove to Mt. Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock)
– except you can’t drive to the Rock.
You must leave your car at the bottom of the mountain and entrust your
life to the driver of a flatbed truck who hurls pilgrims up the mountain at
of adventure, our toughest physical challenge came on Mt. Zwekabin in Kayin
state. We drove through seaside Mon
state, to Moulemein, and on to Hpa-an in Kayin.
Hpa-an is a small city surrounded by karst mountains and rice
paddies. This area lies in the former
“brown zone” – off limits to tourists and the hotbed of the longest-running
civil war in the world. We passed
gorgeous vistas, punctured by army bunkers and billboards urging Kayin to
identify themselves in the controversial, upcoming census. We explored caves covered in thousands of
miniature Buddha statutes and visited local watering holes. Mt. Zwekabin, just outside Hpa-an, is
considered a sacred mount in the Kayin culture.
We are mountain climbers, so we decided to climb it – with all the kids in tow (9, 6, and 1).
trailhead you must drive through the grounds of a monastery – an area that is crisscrossed by hundreds of
huge Buddha statues in perfectly straight lines, like they were seeded
there. Give a small donation to the
intoning monk at the entrance and commence the 2.5 hour climb straight up
hundreds of staircases. Literally, its
mostly stairs up to the top, which punishes the knees. An hour in, I was ready to turn around – but
my husband urged us on. There were so
many false summits,; however, watching all the other pilgrims inspired me,
particularly the young families out for a day hike in their traditional Kayin
tunics, the old aunties barefoot, and the young monks bringing up bags of sand
for construction at the top. We
summited, the valley was shrouded in smoke, as this was the hot, dry
season. We ate vegetarian food from the
small restaurant and hiked back – through a minor forest fire. No big deal.
Everyone got a lollipop and Sunkist after that ordeal.
before Christmas, a week after our arrival, we went for a wander through
Bogyoke Market. A sanitized walk through
last minute Christmas merchandise displays this was not. Walking through the
market for the first time, completely disoriented by the unending rows of
fabric, towers of flip-flops, a kaleidoscope of rioting longyis, the smell of
rotten-sweet pickled plums, turning each corner to something vaguely familiar
yet completely foreign; I couldn’t help but mouth “this is so different” over
and over, louder and louder. The thanaka
smeared faces smiling with their betel-nut brandished teeth, pedldling
second-hand screwdrivers and chunks of raw jade, the heat, oh god, the
heat. Why is it so god damn hot?! I
needed a moment to sit.
re-creating your home at post?
photo albums close at hand. Displaying
all of our treasured tchotchkes and art as quickly as possible.
I tried to avoid using our mosquito net – it feels oppressed, hovering
over our heads at night, like a cage.
But then I kept being woken by dozens of bites throughout the night and
had to slather on bug repellant – in bed.
That’s not healthy. Oppressive
repellant cage it is! Plus dengue is
here and for real. Ick.
Imported wine and beer are a fantasy here – mostly unavailable and poor
quality. However the national brewery
makes a very light, very refreshing brew that hits the right spot at the end of
another 105 degree day.
We are very privileged here.
There is no denying there is that but truth be told, our household staff
are essential to our health and happiness here.
And I hope, as their employers, we provide them with a good living wage
that translates into a better life for their families. We have a housekeeper and nanny who run the
house. They shop at the local markets,
sanitize the food, and cook for us. They
also keep the house dust/mold/pollen/bug free.
Nature takes over very quickly here.
We also have a driver, which is essential given that diplomats are
allowed only one car and public transportation is unsafe. It takes so much
longer to accomplish anything here – no dishwashers, no drive-thru bank
tellers, no parking lots – so I am very grateful for our wonderful staff.
live without but have had to?
quality coffee, wine and cheese. Granted
these are luxury items, but can make a great weekend dinner with friends. Instant coffee still reigns supreme. Imported alcohol suffered a government
crackdown without warning and with possible ulterior motives. Importing has been halted until the law can
be clarified. Dairy products do not figure largely in Myanmar cuisine,
therefore they can still be hard to find, very expensive, and subject to
inconsistent supply. Topic at a
playgroup today – where has all the cheese in Yangon gone?
to reliable internet. Some days I can’t
even properly load my gmail html. That
gets old sometimes.
gave you about the diplomatic life?
speaking, bring a luggage toolbox. We
filled a small Tupperware box with tape, box cutter, scissors, and similar and
packed in checked luggage. This little
toolkit was so handy in those first few weeks.
sanity: don’t take yourself seriously and laugh, just laugh. Just go with the flow. There’s a saying here “ya bah day” – it means
roughly, “it’s okay” or “no problem”, “no big deal”. Basically, your water may not work, your
flight may have been cancelled without warning, but “ya bah day” – its
okay. We’ll figure it out.
9-yr-olds observation – dark tank-top and long flowy skirt. The culture is quite conservative, hence the
longer skirt. I should wear something
over my shoulders too, but it just gets too hot! Working at the Embassy it’s usually a custom
dress made from local fabric and a cardigan with flats. Tailoring is so affordable! We’ve had dozens of beautiful clothes made
for us, using unique local fabrics.
night, what’s on the menu?
(yes, we have a cook – a major perk of life abroad) prepares wonderful Myanmar
food. This food should be served all at once, with dozens of small dishes
fanned out on the table. One takes
scoops of this or that to top their own bowl of rice. Tea leaf salad consists of fermented tea
leaves mixed with crunchy peanuts, fried garlic and shallots plus tiny dried
shrimp. It may not sound like your cup
of tea (ha) – but it is very delicious.
Ginger salad is another staple – a refreshing palate cleanser bursting
with flavors. We also enjoy a spicy
tomato sauce or a soupy mixture of pale yellow lentils with fava beans. The proteins are usually some kind of
curry-marinated chunks of meat. We have
large bowls full of exotic (unidentifiable to me) seasonings in our
be some fresh-from-scratch brownies – the kids and I have refined our baking
skills while here, given the dearth of western sweets and breads. Sometimes you just need an American brownie,
happy here it’s hard to daydream about other places (but I should, since we
will move every 2-3 years)! We would
love to serve in German-speaking Europe.
My husband is German, our kids speak German, and we all enjoy that part
of the world. Plus its just plain nice
to have modern public transportation sometimes.
But before that, we’ll serve next in New Delhi for 2 years. I’ve heard it’s similar to Yangon, but 10
times more intense – let’s ride this coaster!
you before arriving?
anything here. Our impression was this
isolated, desolate place with few consumer goods – we shipped crates of
toothpaste and olive oil, for goodness’ sake!
However, you can now find almost anything on the local market – Colgate
toothpaste, Italian cold-pressed olive oil – although it can get prohibitively
expensive and unpredictable. I would
still ship over-the-counter and prescription medicines though; the ones
available here are dodgy.
question; Myanmar has been the perfect match for our young expat family. It’s still in a sweet spot of sorts. Still “undeveloped” and “uncommericalized” by
western standards but that means that local traditions have been preserved, a
beautiful culture that is its own creation.
You can easily fly to huge neighboring metropolises for a fill of
“western civilization” or, instead, trek into mountains full of tribal villages
that are the same as when George Orwell passed through.
Anything else I forgot or special