Monday, October 25, 2010

Biking in Burma

Biking here in Yangon is certainly an interesting prospect. There are a few challenges that make it rather exciting to jump on the bike and ride;

  1. road conditions (or lack of road)

  2. traffic (watch out for the buses and taxis especially)

  3. pedestrians (standing on the white line is a safety zone - you may not be able to see me, but you can't touch me if I'm standing here!)

  4. dogs

  5. cows

  6. unmarked road repairs (traffic cones don't exist - road repairs are usually marked with a pile of rocks right in the road)

  7. broken down cars (repairs are done where ever the car breaks down. If the driver gets a flat in the middle lane, that's where he'll stop and make the repair)

  8. and poor lighting.

But, all things considered, I've only had a couple of close calls so far, nothing serious. Although the traffic is crazy here, nobody gets irate and road rage is certainly not an issue. The traffic and people kind of "flow" around each other versus following any rules or obeying any lane markings. I make an odd enough entity - helmet, gloves, water bottle, tricked-out bike, big Caucasian guy - that most people stare and give me a fairly wide berth. Often the children in cars will goad me on when they pass, all in a good-natured way, and I'll be compelled to sprint out and pass them, much to their delight.

The roads themselves present the greatest challenge. There's really only one road that is good enough for road biking for any distance, so I'll ride that out-and-back two times a week or so with my friend Chris H. Otherwise, it's mountain bike time to negotiate the pot holes and other road hazards. I usually leave early mornings about 5 a.m. when the traffic is thin and the riding less risky. I've been all over Yangon now, gotten lost most every time because all the side streets look the same and there are few street signs here. I eventually find my way back using the GPS.

There are a surprising number of bikers (not the commuters) who ride, especially on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Most are Myanmar, some are expats or other embassy folks. There's even a Myanmar Cycling Federation that I want to join, just so I can say I'm a member. Plus, we have Bike World, a great little bike shop run by an Australian, Jeff P., who also organizes tours and rides.

Biking is a passion and no matter where you go, you're bound to run into someone else who shares that passion. Even in Myanmar. So, come ride with us.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Life so far in Burma

So, we've been in Burma for 2 months now and we've had time to acclimate to living in this Junta-run country. It's not quite what I expected in some ways. Here are some of the more interesting things we've noticed.

1. Considering the international sanctions against Burma, I've been surprised by the rather robust availability of nearly everything. Sure, there are some "American" items that you can't get; peanut butter being one of those essentials. I take that back, you can get peanut butter, if you don't mind a Chinese version or Thai version. Luckily we brought a good stock with us. Heatherly makes fun of my addiction to Jif Extra Crunchy; but I'm not the only one as we've given some away already to other perfectly sane and discriminating friends. Otherwise, if you're standing in one of the markets, you could just as easily be in a market in China or Thailand or Singapore.

2. Cash and lots of it. You can't do anything by credit card here, so you must pay in cash. Which wouldn't be so bad if the value of the Myanmar Kyat were a little better. Right now it's at about 1000 Kyat for each dollar, so a trip to the grocery store to get $60 to $80 of food requires one of us to be the "bag" man. The predominant bill is the 1000 Kyat note, so you have to count out 60 of those. Heaven knows how making a big purchase would go down, such as a $30,000 car. I imagine we'd need a couple of heavies for protection, a non-descript briefcase and a mutually beneficial location in a semi-public place. The transaction itself would take hours (1, 2, 3, 4....).

3. Roads are rough in most places, harder to describe the farther out you get. Sometimes a road is simply where the houses are not. And there aren't that many of them outside the towns.

4. News is not the Washington Post or the New York Times, not even Fox or CNN. The main newspaper of the Burma government is 1 or 2 pages of national "news" and 20 pages of international news that tends to be more supermarket tabloid. The information age is an infant here.

5. Restaurants are everywhere! For a country where the average income is about $2 a day, there are a ton of restaurants in Yangon. We haven't had a chance to go to many of them yet, but the ones we have gone to are pretty good.

Although there are other things that define and distinguish Burma, there is common ground. The people are gentle, friendly and, like all of us on this dust mote in God's great universe, just trying to live, love and find some happiness in life. Despite the poverty and difficult living conditions we've seen, they are still moms and dads, working hard to raise their children and maybe, just maybe, find happiness in seeing their children's children.

Children's children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children. Prov 17:6

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One shoe less

Come Friday, we will have been here in Yangon for a month. I truly find that hard to believe as I feel still transitory, in motion, yet I know we have also settled a tiny bit. We know where to find yogurt and good French croissants (day two thanks to our sponsors!), how to ride in and pay for a taxi, the three major north-south and two major east-west roads in town and the all-important wisdom of always carrying a camera, bug spray, after-bite, hand sanitizer and plenty of local currency no matter where we are headed. Oh, and to always look down while walking to avoid the holes in the sidewalks that open up to another subterranean sewer level two to four feet below.

Indeed, one of those holes claimed Maiya's right Teva flip flop. It was dark and we were walking back to the appartment from a good, Euro0-style (with prices to match) pizza place. The sidewalk was dark and the random holes only shades darker or lighter, depending on the random headlights of oncoming traffic. Maiya skipped, stumbled a bit and then cried out, standing on one foot, that her shoe was gone. She cried. I gave her a piggy-back ride back home. MeiLin plotted how we might come back with a flashlight or in the morning to rescue the shoe. Maiya wimpered again for her shoe. I stated uncategorically that the shoe was gone, not to be retrieved three feet down in raw sewage, and that a shoe was minor -- it could have been Maiya's foot or whole leg. MeiLin continued to plot retrievals for days as we passed the area in cars or taxis. Maiya gained a new pair of local, harder plastic flip flops. And, I placed the order online for a new pair of Tevas.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

So much, so little

All that we need for the next six weeks is in a closet. Everything else has been wrapped, boxed, padded and lugged down the crazy town home stairs and then packed into crates--most headed for a three-year storage and a few to meet us in Rangoon later.
The girls have been at the grandparents' this week, enjoying those last precious days together. We also thought it would be less disruptive for them if they didn't see their world packed up and taken away piece by piece.
We hit a zenith in possessions about 8 years ago and have been purging every move since. Yet, still we have much, too much. In fact, once it is boxed away and taken, I don't feel much need. But, put those five ink pads, 2 stamps and four books the packers missed in front of me and I feel a tug. I might need these, right? Take them away again, please, before I figure out how to squeeze them into our ridiculous luggage count.
I miss the girls and am looking forward to a week on the 40' boat with galley kitchen. All we need is right there.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Off we go, into the wild blue yonder...

I love living in our nation's capitol. There's always something going on, something to do, and most of them are FREE!

The US Air Force Band plays at the Air Force Memorial every Wednesday and Friday night from June through August. Since Heatherly was working, the girls and I took some chairs, a blanket, some bubbles and camped out under the clear, blue sky on a spectacular night with warm breezes and great music.

Now, I'm not sure if the girls really enjoyed the music. They spent most of the time blowing bubbles at each other and the kids around them. But, at least I was outside with my girls, away from the cares of the week, relaxing and walking down memory lane with the jazz band.

Great night. Looking forward to the next evening concert.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things. ~ Pierce Harris

The girls and I had a father-daughter weekend. This wasn't planned; we'd signed up for the Tour de Chesapeake months ago, intending on all going. But, Heatherly was not up to biking and camping yet, so we got the girls out of school early on Friday, packed the tandem and MeiLin's bike, along with all the camping gear, and headed down the coast of Virginia to the town of Mathews.

We spent the night on the field of the local middle school in our 3-man tent. It rained and poured, and then the lightening crashed around us. While MeiLin slept through it all, Maiya and I conferred and decided the best course of action would be to make a dash for the van and wait out the lightening there. MeiLin didn't get a vote; I had to drag her out of the tent like a sack of potatoes.

But the next morning was bright and clear. After a less than stellar breakfast (or maybe it was the perception because it was served in the middle school cafeteria), we hit the road, Maiya on the back of our tandem and MeiLin on her single. The day was wonderful! Flat, back country roads, little traffic, bicyclists everywhere, sunshine and cool breezes, puddles to blaze through and splash ourselves and each other. The girls chattered endlessly about nothing the music of their silly laughter carrying us down the roads. We stopped for a rest and watched a glass blowing demonstration. We fished for tadpoles in the lilly pond. We ate snacks to strengthen us for the journey. We had lunch along the bay and explored the oyster shell beaches. Seventeen miles and four hours later, we made it back to the camp and the girls still had the energy to play on the school's playground for nearly an hour!

Next on the agenda was a movie at the local theater, complete with popcorn and drinks. With time to kill before the show started, we found a local library and hung out for a while. Post movie it was back towards Mathews and the local beach. Warm sand, warm waters and tons to explore, including the eagles nest on the pier. MeiLin found that the mucky areas of the surf reminded her of her time at the island of Juist and decided a tribute to Alt Oma (Mom's mom) was in order. If you look closely, you can see her name "Sophie" drawn in the sand. More shells, crabs, sea glass and sand - all in the setting sun's light.

Dinner that evening was in down-town Mathews, complete with a live blue-grass band - BBQ to the Orange Blossom Special. The girls broke out their scooters and I sat on the grass listening to the music, watching them zoom around, and silently thankful for time and place and peace.

I don't know what the girls will remember as they grow older. I know that I still have strong memories of events in my childhood, bits and pieces, things that just stand out and give my life a sense of stability, of place, of experience.
We did a lot this weekend. My hope is MeiLin and Maiya will have at least one thing that, in some distant future, some smell or image or sound will spark a memory...and they will smile and be silently thankful for time and place and peace.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Riding Dinosaurs

Today was a beautiful day. The girls and I hit the road since Heatherly was at a conference in DC presenting a paper. What to do, what to do. As the son of an avid planner and seeker of relevant and memorable activities for our children (thanks, mom), I'm always looking for things that will instill a cultural, historical or natural appreciation in our girls. Fat chance. The girls basically want to know if a gift shop will be involved, if we can eat out and if any snack opportunities will present themselves. Oh, and is there anything they can climb. Note to self: don't ask the kids what they want to do, just do something.

The aquarium at the Baltimore Inner Harbor was the first choice but a quick check online showed sold-out conditions on that attraction. So, I opted for a trip out to Front Royal, VA and the Skyline Caverns.

As expected, the girls were more fascinated by (1) the dirt on the floor of the cave and the cool sounds you can make when you drag your feet; (2) the ginormous gift shop complete with rude-humor bumperstickers, cheap toys and t-shirts; (3) lunch; (4) the Dragon Maze at the cave; (5) and the dinosaur statue in the park. Ah well, I guess at some point they'll begin to appreciate the things that parents expect them to. But then again, maybe we parents miss too much because we don't go and ride the dinosaurs.

Today is another beautiful day. Maybe we'll take the girls to the park and climb some trees and then go for ice cream. Simple. My new motto: ride dinosaurs.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Weighty Moments

An invitation to the White House Egg Roll - pretty special, amazingly cool, but not fully appreciated by the 100+ kids from our school today. Parents got it. Teachers got it. Kids - hmm, chatting on the bus or in the security line was a highlight of the day for many. For our girls, it was neat, but the healthy food court attracted them as much as the Egg Roll or seeing the Obama family up close (well, closer than I ever thought we would be).

Healthy or not, the food was a hit with all the kids thanks to long lines and warm sun. Two hours after breakfast and most of them want to know when they will get to eat again. The girls managed to scarf down hard-boiled eggs (complements of the Egg Roll), homemade granola, bananas, apples and fruit smoothies in the short hour. After a long race to the buses and an even longer wait in the bus for one lost chaperone/child set, we headed back to school and then on to a late lunch where the girls then consumed their packed lunches and large fruit drinks. Goodness!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Cake Pudding

Spring blasted in on us with a week of sun and warmth and then crept back to its more normal rainy self this week. The rain suits me today as we enter Passion Week before Resurrection Sunday. I grew up saying "Easter," but my short trip to Uganda taught me this new term: Resurrection Sunday.

I had forgotten until yesterday in church as a lady came in a bit late and sat next to me. She was suffering from allergies even more than I was with tissues and an inhaler and a process of excusing herself every now and then to go outside and blow her nose more loudly. After she sat down, as the kids started a processional in the aisles with their palms waving, she asked me
"Is this Resurrection Sunday?"

"No, Palm Sunday."

Easter, for those who want to know, comes from Middle English which itself comes from Old English and then goes back to Germanic Ostern, which surprising (or not?) is the name of a goddess and her festival, derived from the cardinal point east. What? I think I will use Resurrection Sunday from here out. It is obvious, in-your-face, blunt, which explains why Americans don't use the term much. Being obvious about faith isn't in favor.

Even though it is still Lent, I have been researching breads and other goodies traditionally served on Resurrection Sunday and that has made me hungry. Yesterday we made petit fours for the egg hunt at church (eggs = new life, no bunnies needed). I had leftover sponge cake cubes from that effort sitting in the fridge this morning. I had read somewhere that leftover cake could be used for bread pudding. A revelation - cake is rich bread, right? I freaked out momentarily when the cubes dissolved quicker in the custard base, but then calmed down when I saw how it all baked together. It's Monday, but Sunday is coming.

Sponge Cake Pudding
Leftover cake cubes, 4 cups (mine were roughly 1.5 inch squares--I would say 1/3 of a 9 x 13 sheet cake)
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk (because I had it leftover)
1 1/2 cup milk or vanilla soy milk
3/4 cup pecans, chopped fine
1 cup frozen blackberries (from this last summer's picking--lovely!) or any kind of berry

1. Crumble the cake in a bowl. Add the pecans.
2. In a small bowl, blend the eggs, buttermilk and milk with a fork.
3. Pour the egg mixture over the cake crumbles. Add in the frozen berries and stir just until combined.
4. Pour mixture into a 9 x 9 square baking dish that has been sprayed or oiled.
5. Bake at 375 until firm and browning on top.

We enjoyed it with a spoonful of Greek vanilla yogurt on top. The younger daughter rejected the berries, but I consider that a personal preference issue.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Igloo in the Road

I get this question a lot. In fact, I can almost bet it's the second or third question when someone finds out we're going to Burma, kids and all. It's not always exactly the same, but it invariably is accompanied by the raised eyebrow, the not-so-subtle body language that says "Really?"

"Is it safe?"

"Aren't you worried about the girls?"

Last weekend the girls and I played out in the snow for a couple of hours. MeiLin, ever the project and goal-oriented girl, set her heart on building an igloo with these great, plastic block-scoops. You scoop up the snow, pack it in and turn the form upside to create perfect snow blocks. Maiya spent most of her time sitting in the igloo while MeiLin and I built--MeiLin is her father's daughter.

The snow was light and fluffy, fragile. Over an hour, we were able to build a tenuous tower of snow, ever taller, eventually topping even my six-foot height. The girls, of course, were ready to spend the night in their new igloo, build more, add a roof, attic, windows, doors. Problem was, we built it in the road.

"Is it safe?"

"Aren't you worried about the girls?"

I don't know. We think we're safe in our neighborhood, safe enough to play in the snow in the middle of the street. Safe enough to walk to school. Safe enough to drive around town. Safe enough to bike to work. Everyday we buy into this false sense of control and security. I convince myself that nothing is going to happen, that I can control the outcome of today because of the choices I make.

Put on your seat belt, and you're safe. Wash your hands, and you're safe. Look both ways before you cross, and you're safe.

Trouble is, the world around us, the daily news bear witness to the light, fluffy and fragile igloo of our daily lives. Earthquakes. House fires. Accidents. Sickness. Tragedy. The violence of man. The igloo eventually melts. The walls slowly collapse and the igloo disappears. "For what is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes."

Our igloo? It lasted a lot longer than I thought it would, considering its location. I gotta tell you, as a guy, it's awfully tempting to blast through it when you're driving the car. But, surprisingly, no one did. The igloo slowly twisted and collapsed part way, still standing, struggling to hold on to its form. It eventually disappeared into the snow bank on the side of the road.

It's snowing again, and this weekend promises a snow storm of historic proportions, possibly the biggest in the Washington DC region. Time to build another igloo, even if we know it will just disappear. "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this..."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Banana Bread for Kids of All Ages

This morning, I found myself staring at three bruised and blackened bananas. This was not my first, or even hundredth, encounter with the rejected fruit. My otherwise wonderful husband and oldest child both refuse to consume any but the most perfectly yellow bananas. Any that have browned even a little are passed over during snack time. This preference for only yellow results in quite a few extra bananas, past their prime as the time from green to yellow to a few tiny brown spots can happen almost overnight (or at least it feels like it).
In the past, I've done a variety of banana bread recipes with or without nuts of all kinds. I've made banana muffins, peanut butter banana bread, Amish banana cake and many many banana yogurt smoothies. I adore banana breads both fresh and toasted. Is there anything more delightful than toasted banana bread with cream cheese or butter? The children have not exhibited my fondness for banana bread unless I throw in some chocolate chips, and even then, they manage to often eat out the chocolate chips and leave most of the bread. Muffin shapes they accept a little more readily, even if the same recipe. Form appears to be important to them in ways I would not have been able to articulate pre-children.
Today though I had a picky child recipe success with the bananas no longer fit for direct consumption. I'm out of chocolate chips (and vanilla, as you will see the omission in the recipe), but really wanted a bread that girls would eat willingly at lunch tomorrow. I did, however, have some King Arthur double dark cocoa powder (decadent stuff!) and chia seeds I had bought a few months ago on a fit of health after reading about them in a running book. I borrowed the base of the recipe from Bernard Clayton's wonderful bread book (I have the older version) and improvised from there.
The result: a success even with the most pickiest eater in the house. They even asked for more. Wow. Chocolate really does make everything better and, as I found out, when you make the whole bread chocolate, they can't pick it out. I got them now.

Chocolate Banana Bread for Everyone
6 Tbsp butter at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups mashed bananas (about 3 bananas)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp chia seeds (optional, but yummy little crunch--or try poppy seeds)
3 Tbsp cocoa powder (the dark King Arthur is wonderful)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

  1. Preheat over to 350F.
  2. Grease a medium (8 x 4) baking pan. I use Pam.
  3. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together and ad the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Mix in the banana puree.
  4. In a second medium bowl, mix the flour, seeds, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt with a whisk until combined.
  5. Using a rubber spatula, mix in 2/3 of the flour mixture into the butter mixture then once combined, add the remainder of the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Do not overmix or the bread will be tough.
  6. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes--until firm on top (not jiggly). Cool on a rack for five minutes in the pan and then turn out and finish cooling.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Christmas Bread

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is making and consuming natalizia, a fabulous Italian bread similar to, but not quite as adorned as, panettone. I call this a tradition because I have been making it for approximately 10 years, ever since I found a obscure cookbook Celebrating Italy by Carol Field. Field provides a wonderful history of tiny hamlets and feast days along with seemingly well-researched and old recipes (I mean old as in back to the Roman period). She spend a good portion of the Natale section on the pandolce, panettone and natalizia Christmas breads. It takes me all day to make 2 tall domed natalizia and the time is worth it. This bread is airy, eggy and when sliced thin, toasted and slathered with butter is the most delicious thing I know. Sorry if I am drooling.

Now, on another bread topic (yes, bread does seem to feature heavily in my life), I made a wonderful discovery today. If I heat my oven as high as it will go (which, for the record, is 550F), place a cast iron skillet on the bottom filled with warm water and bake baguettes at this blasting heat for 25 minutes, their crunch is fabulous and they get wonderful air pockets. While I still say I could use a bread oven someday when we settled down, this new approach definitely produces an almost bakery-worthy crust.