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