I’ve been an official resident of Istanbul, Turkey for two weeks now and I have a full mind, sore legs, and a deep sense of awe.
The other morning I went for a run in our neighborhood. I stepped over fat, sleeping street dogs, passed waiters carrying tea out to businessmen chatting at the tables which were spilling out into the sidewalks, forced myself to continue pass the luscious smelling bread wafting from the bakery, and continued all the way down until I reached a dead end in front of the Bosphorus. I paused here for one of those movie perfect moments as the sun just sneaked over the horizon lighting up the bridge that connects the continents of Europe and Asia (yet still remain Istanbul on both sides). To my side stood the most stunningly detailed mosque that oozes grandness and history. On the river edge a fisherman pulled up his line with a small wiggling fish on it and as he drew it to the shore one of Istanbul’s greatly beloved cats snuck up and tried to claim it for her own. It was one of those slices of time where the energy of a place reaches your soul and imprints itself. It was one of the many moments of falling in love with Istanbul that I’ve experienced since arriving.
Never before have I lived in a place with such deep, rich history - as I walk the streets I see bits and pieces from empires that thrived ages ago, I see traditions dating back centuries, and places that are still used as they were used literally thousands of years before. It brings with it a feeling of oneness with the greater line of human history. The beautiful street cafe life of Europe is thriving here but intertwined with it is the exotic middle eastern flare. Just walking the streets have brought enough entertainment to fill our time as we ooh and ah at the shops and restaurants all around.
To give you a bit of a background on how we ended up here; Kim and I knew early on that our third year in Myanmar would be our last, it is a beautiful and interesting country but the trials and challenges weigh on you and we wanted to leave while still in good spirits. As we set out in search of a new international placement we knew we wanted a huge culture shift so we set our eyes on Eastern Europe or South America. After many months of searching, applying, and interviewing, I was offered the position as middle school art teacher at MEF International School in Istanbul, Turkey. We were elated and accepted quickly.
Half of the summer we spent backpacking Ecuador with my younger brother Drew, it was an adventure filled trip that showed us a lot of what South America had to offer. We sailed down a river in the Amazon on a carved out canoe, we climbed a suspended bridge and ziplined across canyons, we ate so many empanadas, we staggered the ecuador, we wandered through ancient Inca ruins, parasailed over the ocean, spent hours picking out the perfect “panama hat,” and nearly died climbing down to a stunning emerald lake in the middle of a mountain range (at least it felt like I was going to die because the altitude was over 12,000 feet).
Another unforgettable adventure for certain but nothing can compare to the feeling of coming back home. We spent most of our six weeks in Maine visiting as many people as possible. One of my favorite parts was our family and friends camping weekend up in Avon where we all had a blast hanging around the campfire and swimming up in the mountains. It seems to keep getting harder and harder to leave all you fine folks in Maine. It’s funny but it really is the little things that I love and miss the most like shopping dates with Amanda, photographing with Andrea, chasing Zane around, life talks early in the morning with Dad, ice cream dates with Nikki, Mac, and Danny, chilling with Drew, seeing Sam’s first apartment, making tasty treats with Autumn, and simply spending time with all the rest of you. Know that you are dearly missed and thought of often.
Ready or not, Kim and I dragged all of our suitcases onto the plane and were Istanbul bound before I knew it. We had a bit of a hairy transit with some visa confusion, not being able to find our bags, and nearly getting our contact lenses confiscated in London, but all in all we arrived in safely with all of our belongings to find a warm greeting from my principal who picked us up from the airport. Here are a few pictures of my new school.
The first two weeks here in Istanbul has been jam packed. My new school had a great orientation set up that filled all the newcomers in on working at the school and living in Turkey. We had interactive basic Turkish language sessions, Turkish history lessons, plenty of insurance/bank/info paperwork to fill out, trips to the tax office, the police station, the phone company, and so much more. I feel extremely well cared for here and it is a huge relief to know that there are so many people that want us to feel happy here and have gone out of their way to help us get settled.
I’ve spent the first two weeks in orientation at school by day and out exploring the town at night. We live in school provided apartments which are directly next to school. Once we get a little more settled in our apartment I’ll share some pictures of it but for now here is our building and the apartment pool with the school directly in the background:
We live in a quieter area of town but just a short walk away is a fun section with lots of stores like cheese stores, household goods stores, grocers spilling out onto the sidewalks, spice stores, electronics stores, etc etc etc. We also have so many food places including a variety of restaurants, many kebab stalls, a very famous bean restaurant, pizza places, bakeries, dessert places, and even a section of very well known baked potato stalls. Near the edge of the Bosphorus is a market area filled with stalls to buy art and jewelry and souvenirs. This whole section unveils a range of bars and clubs on weekend nights. It took me a few days to not feel completely overwhelmed by this area because there is so much going on but now I am excited to try all the different places and explore even further out.
It is crazy hilly here! I had read before arriving to bring good walking shoes and I am so glad I caved and bought a new pair of sneakers before coming because I have never seen such a hilly place in my life! We live in the middle of this giant hill and it took a few mornings to actually make it to the top. Kim has been walking miles everyday as she has been going out and exploring the town. I’m afraid that one day I’ll miss step and find myself tumbling down one of these massive hills but at least I’ll be able to get the hang of it before the snow starts to fly. The weather has been gorgeous. We didn’t expect it to be quite this warm but it has been in the high 80s or low 90s everyday. I think fall will be arriving soon though because I can already feel a shift in the nightly temperatures to being a tad cooler.
Kim is head over heals in love with the food here. She has been filling her days with exploring the depths of the supermarkets near and far as well as tracking down open air markets (like farmers markets) around the city every day of the week. She has been cooking up a storm with all of the delicious ingredients she has been finding. We’ve been eating cheese nonstop (to make up for the lack of cheese we experienced in Asia) and so many fresh veggies. At school the lunches are provided free of charge (with daily vegetarian options) so I’ve been enjoying some different dishes like lentil soups, interesting salads, and a whole slew of cooked veggies. Then there is the fantastic dining out experiences we’ve enjoyed. Kim has been eating kebabs daily while out on her adventures, while we have started to eat our way through the many restaurants in the area.
The prime event was most certainly the traditional Turkish breakfast we had today. We had heard of this spectacular part of Turkish culture before even arriving and we were so so looking forward to it and let me tell you, it did not disappoint! The breakfast was comprised of a variety of smaller dishes including honey butter, green olives, black olives, fresh marmalade, cheese with cherry jam, eggs cooked with tomato and cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, feta cheese, fresh butter, a cheese plate with a variety of cheeses, a tomato paste dip with olive oil, fried eggs with sausage, and an endless supply of multiple kinds of breads. All of this was more than Kim and I could eat and was only $25!
Another top event so far was the cruise that MEF arranged for all of the teachers to go on. As we sailed along the Bosphorus and took in sights of Istanbul from the water, we socialized, ate dinner, and danced the night away. It was a lot of fun to have everyone together enjoying themselves.
Istanbul is well known for adoring it's street cats. You see them all around town plus plenty of places that have left food out for them (and the street dogs), here are some food dishes outside our local grocery store, some cats outside our apartment and laying outside a store. Also, one of the golden retriever street dogs that I had to convince Kim to not bring home. The last is a bottle return machine that releases cat/dog food at the bottom.
This year I will be teaching 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grade art as well as an 11th and 12th grade combined class. I spent some long days (and nights) working on curriculum planning for the year but am now rewarded with a nice long holiday before school starts. We have a full 10 days off in which Kim and I are looking forward to exploring Istanbul further, eating lots of amazing food, and doing some lounging by the pool. So far Istanbul has lived up to all of our expectations and I can't wait to see what else this spectacular city has to hold.
Thinking back to the moments that made up 2016 makes my heart swell because they were filled with adventure, laughter, travel, family, new experiences, delicious food, friends, and all of the things that make my soul happy. Kim and I were lucky enough to start our third year living abroad as I continued to teach High School Art as well as starting as a Technology Integration Specialist at the elementary level of an International School in Yangon, Myanmar. We spent the first half of the year in our apartment we shared with two dear friends, then I spent the beginning of the summer becoming a certified yoga teacher before sharing the rest of the summer with my family in Maine, and returning to Southeast Asia in the fall, traveling in bits throughout the whole year. I still enjoy going back to visit my 14 Adventures of 2014 blog post as a little peek into that year of exciting changes so I thought I would return to the idea and create another reminiscent post for 2016. So here it is, 16 Epic Parts of 2016:
16. Cruising into New Years in Vietnam
Kim and I woke up on the first morning of 2016 to the sound of the ocean lapping against our boat as we cruised through Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most beautiful landforms. The limestone crests jutted out of the water to every side of us as we peacefully sailed along into the new year. After that we found our way up into the mountains of Sapa and spent days motor biking the chilly twisting mountain roads. What a way to start out the year!
15. Biggest Buddha in the World
When we do my dream road trip across the US I am going to have to plan lots of extra time because I am a sucker for “biggest in the world” things. Let’s be honest here, who isn’t? Okay, maybe it’s just me. Nonetheless, when we visited the quiet Myanmar town of Hpa-An I heard that there was the biggest reclining Buddha in the World just a short ways away and I was sold. Of course we HAD to go see it. I also thought it was a great idea to take the scenic route which ended up being a very long, very dusty, dirt road. Our motorbike was not impressed (nor was the driver – Kim). Just as the sun was setting we managed to pull into Win Sein Taw Ya and it was quite the spectacular site. This paired with a weekend of cave exploring and motorbiking with friends made for a memorable time.
14. Our First No Plans Trip
10 days and no plans, that’s how our trip to the Philippines started in April. With nothing booked besides our plane tickets, we backpacked our way through the Philippine island of Luzon where we hiked to see hanging coffins, ate empanadas on the cobblestone streets of Vigan, and enjoyed to waves of Pagudpud. Although it was not the “perfect” vacation that I could have neatly planned, it was worth it in so many surprise ways.
13. Solo Art Exhibition
In May I completed one of my top artistic goals, to host my first Solo Art Exhibition. The body of work was a series of digitally manipulated (glitched) photographs of Myanmar culture. Since this country is still not completely free (earlier this year a man was imprisoned for using an image of Buddha in a bar advertisement), I held the show in a private location as invitation only. The completion of the show was also intended to model the process of exhibiting your work as a working artist for my advanced art students who also had to host similar shows on their own.
12. Yoga Training in the Indian Mountains
I’m not sure how to summarize the life-affirming experience of yoga training in one simple paragraph so please head over a read the long version of my month in India learning the traditional and modern approaches to yoga. After a month of practicing, learning anatomy, questioning everything through philosophy, and more practicing, I accepted my yoga teacher certification as a full fledge yoga instructor.
11. Megan’s Nashville Bash
Directly after yoga training I flew from India straight to Nashville, Tennessee where the beautiful Meg was parting away with her fantastic gang of girls. It was a weekend of cowboy boots, honkey tonks, and tons of drinking. Unfortunately for me it also included catching some sickness on the plane and being in bed for a good chunk of the time. Nonetheless, it was a time to remember, cowboy hats and all.
10. 2 Weeks (2 Short) in Maine
Such a short amount of time but in just two weeks I squeezed in SO much love, laughter, and memories. For what felt like a blink of an eye, I was surrounded by all of my favorite people and just thinking about the long summer days we spent camping, BBQing, lounging around, and just hanging out fills me with so much happiness.
09. Meatless Me
Okay, this one is not one moment in time but it is HUGE and deserves a slot; half way through the 2016 year I decided to no longer eat meat. It is something that I have considered for some time for many reasons, health wise, ethics wise, and environmental wise. It has had its challenges but for the most part has been rather easy thanks to the goddess that is my wife who has taken on my vegetarianism as inspiration and is constantly concocting delicious new meatless creations. Mainly I feel like I am living less in duality now, that my beliefs match my actions, and that makes my soul happy.
08. Maine Island Clam Bake
Cabbage Island is a small piece of land just of the coast of Boothbay harbor, Maine. It is also the location of one of the oldest Clam Bake traditions in the North East. Kim and I spent an afternoon with her family, Robin and Steve, sailing about the coast before enjoying lobster, clams, corn, potatoes, onions, and other goodies that were cooked under a blanket of seaweed. Nothing tastes more like Maine than that!
07. Road Trip Around Israel
What is better than a summer road trip? How about a summer road trip with three of your favorite people!? How about a summer road trip with three of your favorite people discovering a new country!? On our way back to Southeast Asia in July, Kim and I stopped in Israel to visit my sister Amanda and her husband Josh (who were there while Amanda completed a summer program and internship for her Law degree). Our short visit brought an overflow of fun as we road tripped around Israel. We explored the city of Tel Aviv, walked through the streets of Jeruselum, stopped to ride a camel in the Judaian desert, awed at the mini grand canyon in Ramon Crater, and took a mud bath in the dead sea. I don’t think there were another four days this year that were filled with more fun, exploration, exciting new things, adventure, or love.
06. Meandering Through a Japanese Garden
I did not expect to find peacefulness when I went to the giant city of Hong Kong for a work conference in September, actually I didn’t expect to like it all that much. Fortunately, both of those were way off. Hong Kong is a fascinating city with so much uniqueness, all of which I enjoyed very much. My favorite part of it though was not the huge shopping centers or the bustling streets, but rather a quiet little park called Nan Lian Garden which echoed that of a Japanese Tea Garden. I had learned about these in my college Asian Art History class. The pathways are twisted and uneven to purposefully induce slow walking. Landscapes are created to produce the most picture perfect views with every branch and stone as an intentional brushstroke in the most stunning painting. Water is trickling and soft music is drifting through the leaves adding to the meditative atmosphere. Asian gardens are not manicured pieces of land, they are living art work experiences.
05. Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea
With such an exciting year, Kim and I decided to take our “fall” break and chill out on some of the best beaches in the world. Lucky for us these are found right next door in southern Thailand. We spent the week snorkeling off Koh Phi Phi, enjoying the sunset on Railay beach in Krabi, soaking in the natural hot springs, and adventuring around. The most memorable time for me being the spectacularly turquoise blue waters that were so stunning in color it was almost unbelievable.
04. Half Marathon Trail Run
Sometimes I get some crazy idea in my head and it just sticks. I’m trying to go along with my life and it is sitting over in the corner of my brain tapping its fingers, waiting for me to pay attention to it. This was one of those ideas. On a warm November morning I spent 3+ hours running 13.1 miles through the mud on trails in the Myanmar mountains to complete my first ever half marathon. My legs were shaking but my smile could not have been bigger when I crossed the finish line to a greeting of friends and congratulations. It took a lot of hard work, early mornings, and focused training, but I did it!
03. Yee Ping Mass Lantern Release
When I first decided to move to Asia I began a list of interesting places to visit and three years later I have forgotten everything on that list except for this one. It took a few years to manage the timing and to get ahold of tickets but it was worth the long wait. On the November full moon I joined hundreds of others on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thialand, in a mass release of sky lanterns and it was the most breathtaking sight I believe I have ever seen.
02. A Month on the Indonesian Islands
I didn’t have a lot of expectations, or plans, when we got on the plane for our winter vacation in Indonesia but by the time we left three weeks later I was head over heals about the string of islands. Starting off on Java we adventured to the highest peaks at the top of Mt. Bromo, an active volcano, then down into the blue lake Ijen Crater to view the blue fire alight from the sulfur gases. By the time we got to the island of Bali we more than enjoyed a much needed rest at our friends Ashley and Matt’s villa. The day after Christmas we grabbed a motorbike and hit the road to spend two weeks cruising along the coast, up the mountains, through the rice terraces, and by the temple towns of Bali. We spent New Years at a black sand beach, saw dolphins, got drenched in a mountain down pour, enjoyed mornings of yoga and monkey walks, and so much more. I can see now why Bali stays in the heart of so many, it has a way of rooting down into your soul.
01. 2nd Year Anniversary
2016 was a year of epic proportions filled with more adventures than most people get to experience in a lifetime and I am so very grateful to call this my life. Yet, not one of these moments would have been half as amazing if I didn’t have my beautiful wife by my side. Her constant encouragement and support through all of my dreams, big and small, makes my life so much fuller. Whatever plan or crazy idea I conjure up is always met with a Yes! My travel companion, my fearless motorbike driver, and my goddess of a chef; the one who always makes me laugh (even when it’s the last thing I want to do) I am so thankful to have celebrated two full years of marriage this year. I read somewhere once that if you love someone, travel with them, for then you will know their true self; happily I can say that I have found someone who loves my truest self right back and that is the most epic part of them all.
December in Yangon is just like December back home, minus the snow, and the cold, and the stores mobbed by Christmas shoppers, and the . . . Okay, maybe it is not just like December back home, but I did try to make the month as festive as I could starting with our Christmas Tree and our Christmas Party. December is an important month not only because it is Christmas, but because it is also my birthday month! Have a read about all of that and more below.
My second favorite day of the year (after my birthday of course) is getting-a-Christmas-tree-day. Always an important tradition in my family, getting a Christmas tree was a huge event that involved coordinating the schedules of everyone in the family, spending hours hiking through the snow, and many eruptions of “this is the one!” There were arguments over the fullness of branches, the softness of needles, and the necessary height of the tree. Snowball fights broke out and fingers/toes/noses got numb. One time my mother declared that we would not settle for any ol’ tree, that we would have to wait for a sign that it was the right one. After an hour of searching we actually found a tree that had an old birds nest in it! It was lumpy and scrawny but we all insisted on getting it because it was “the sign.” That was defiantly the ugliest Christmas tree we ever had! Eventually the majority of us would agree on one and dad would shimmy under the branches to saw it down. Each year, after we found “the one,” we returned home to blast the Christmas music and trim the tree. It was always fun to rediscover the ornaments that we had made and find a way to fit all of the stockings on the chimney. Yes. Getting-a-Christmas-tree-day is certainly the best.
With these roots it should not surprise you to know that I am adamantly against fake Christmas trees. Last year was my first Christmas away from my family so I improvised by buying a large potted house tree to use as my Christmas tree. Unfortunately I am not very good at keeping plants alive and that tree is barely hanging on. Riding in a taxi downtown I saw the most cheerful sight. Right in the middle of the fruit stalls and beatlenut stands was a CHRISTMAS TREE store!!! Although they were all fake trees of course, they were so festive that I couldn’t resist. Hence my first every fake Christmas tree. While we were missing the pine smell and the grandness of a real tree, this little plastic one brought a lot of Christmas spirit into the apartment. Here is the final result.
Kim has developed another mysterious illness, this time it is in the form of pink spots. No, it’s not chicken pox (although we considered that) we think it is some version of heat rash. These little spots appear in different areas all over her body after she is in a hot environment (hello? Any place in Yangon!) They are extremely itchy and are painful at times. AND she has had this for almost two months now! Yes, she has gone to the doctor and they gave her a bunch of different medicine to try, but the thing about heat rash is the only thing that can really make it go away is being cold for long enough which is simply not possible here. Poor Kim, hopefully these spots will disappear soon!
On the 9th I turned 27 years old! I love my birthday and was so glad to be able to share it with some awesome people! On Sunday we had a small ladies brunch at a fancy hotel called Inya Lake. It was a luxurious event that involved course after course of delicious food and endless Champaign. The afternoon turned into hours of munching, sipping, and chatting with some great ladies.
As is tradition, I took a personal day for my birthday giving me and Kim the day to celebrate together. The morning started off with the best macaroons in all of Myanmar. Our first stop of the day was to the nail salon where I have been trying to make time to go for weeks to get my nails painted and designed then we headed over for a massage at my favorite day spa. We enjoyed lunch at Sprouts, a local salad shop, before starting our search for a piece of artwork. Last year, I bought myself a painting on my birthday and I absolutely love it so I thought this year I would do the same. Buying artwork can be difficult, we wandered for a few hours to a couple different galleries before I finally decided on a beautiful abstract canvas painting by a local artist. With that in hand we headed off to Shwe Sa Bwe for dinner. This fine dining restaurant is a social enterprise, meaning that it helps the community buy training and employing local underprivileged people in the fine dining field (so they can get hired long term in a good establishment). Not only that but it was simply spectacular! Defiantly one of the best meals we have had in Yangon. After our lavish 4 course dinner we drifted home to the most decadent and delectable chocolate torte that I have ever tasted (have I mentioned how phenomenal my wife is?). What an amazing birthday! Here is to an equally as incredible 27th year!
The art scene in Yangon is lacking for a city of this size, but luckily we have a lot of great people working on improving that. One place is the Deitta Gallery in downtown Yangon which is specific to photography. I took my Advanced class on a field trip here to see their UnEarthed exhibit. Not only were the photographs absolutely spectacular, but the content was informing and revealing. With each photograph was a typed story all about the hazards of working in Myanmar in the extractive industries sector (think mining for gems and the like).
It is not a secret that I adore Christmas. I love the whole spirit of the season! This year in Yangon Christmas was slightly more apparent than last year. A few times I heard Christmas Carols playing in English while riding in a cab or shopping at a store, there were more Christmas decorations on display all around the city, and I even saw some Christmas carolers on our street once! I was also lucky this year to have a roommate that also adores the Christmas season. So we banded together to throw a Christmas Party! Since almost all of our friends leave for the winter break we picked a Saturday early in December and hosted a huge shindig. We played a silent Christmas movie, blasted Christmas music, had festive Christmas themed food and drinks, and organized a Chinese Auction/ White Elephant. If you are not familiar with the game it goes like this; everyone brings a gift – for our party we asked people to bring the funniest gift that they could find for under $5 – and then based on a number drawn out of a (santa) hat, the gifts are open one by one. The opener gets the choice to keep the gift they selected or trade with someone else. There was SO much laughing and fooling during the game from all of the silly gifts (giant pictures of naked babies, used shoes, a slingshot and tattoo gloves) it most certainly was the highlight of the evening. Even though it is 80* and sunny every day and our families are all so far away, it was amazing to have an evening of Christmas fill our home.
The day before winter break I received my very first care package! My awesome sister Andrea put together an assortment of goodies and fun things and mailed them all the way over here to Yangon. Some of the special food items included honey nut cheerios (my absolute favorite!!!), Oreos, Resses Christmas Trees, Jif peanut butter (our #1 favorite brand), Marshmallow Fluff (Kim was ecstatic about this one), Goldfish, granola bars, Cheez-Its, Fruit Roll-Ups, Hot Chocolate, special chocolates, and some of Maine’s own whoopee pies! Special little items were also tucked inside like a drawing from my nephew, Zane, some family photos, a make-your-own snow kit, a scrapbook, and a small canvas. How lucky am I?!?! I can’t tell you how amazing it is to get so many goodies from home. We have learned to live without many things we are used to here so it is such a special treat to receive all of this! Andrea is defiantly the best!
I have to tell you the story about receiving the package. I was at school when my secretary brought up a slip for me from customs saying that the package was here. My school offered to go retrieve it for me but I wouldn’t receive it until after break (this was the Friday afternoon before our three week winter holiday). Luckily, Kim was headed downtown so I told them that I would pick it up myself and I ran the slip over to Kim. When she arrived at customs there was some problem with getting the package so Kim had to give them the equivalent of $5 (plus the fee for getting it out of customs which was about $3) to get them to give her the package. As soon as that was slipped into the man’s hand all was well and Kim walked out with the package. What a crazy place we live in.
Much of my free time in December was filled up with trip planning. Kim and I had our first three week long break starting in December and we were not going to waste a minute of it. We decided to spend most of the time in Vietnam; I’m not sure where the idea came from originally but once we set on it we knew it was the right choice.
We also decided to visit Siem Ream in Cambodia on the way over. From booking 7 different flights and 8 different hotels, plus all of the organization in between, it was quite the challenge but one that I was certainly grateful to have. The massive trip needs a couple blog posts to share it in it’s full amazement but I’ll leave you with these few photos before I go.
This is the wreath and mistletoe that I made from some fake garland I found at the Christmas tree store and some other Christmas shots for you.
I hope everyone had an amazing holiday season! Stay tuned for posts about our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia!
November was an exciting month when the country of Myanmar had the world’s eyes watching as it held its first fair election. The energy was electric leading up to the big day when the town was eerily quiet. As everyone anxiously awaited the news, we held our annual International Day at school and the connecting International Party at the teacher housing. At the end of the month we headed to the beach where we celebrated Thanksgiving and the Myanmar full moon holiday.
Not my photo! Credited to BBC
I’ll start by admitting that I don’t know a great deal about Myanmar politics, so if you want a history and in depth explanation of the election start here. There. Now, let me tell you about what I do know.
First for a little background: Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, was colonized by the British in the 19th century. They left behind a great deal of influences including colonial buildings, Brittish words that are still used today, bidets, and tea – lots of tea. The next great leader of Burma was General Aung Sun Suki, he helped Burma gain its independence and was held in high regard until his assassination and a coup d’etat in 1962. In the next five decades the military dictatorship greatly hurt the country. The whole country was mostly closed off from foreigners during this period. Thankfully in 2011 this leadership formally ended, however the government still was led by former military officers. Which leads us to now.
This year was the first democratic election in Myanmar’s history. HUGE, right? There was an extraordinary amount of worry and anticipation regarding the election. Everyone was worried about what might happen, that there would be unrests and the government would strike back painfully. No one believed that the election would actually be clean, but the world’s eyes were all looking at Myanmar and some countries even flew in specific organizations to see that the election ran successfully.
For the past few months there have been more and more political rallies. The main party that held these were the National League for Democracy. This is led by Aung Sun Suki’s daughter (of the same name) who has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for her stance against the government. The rallies were spirited events with supporters wearing the red symbol for the league in support. You could also see the golden bird holding arrows sprinkled throughout the city on cars, pins, banners at houses, and photos in shops.
In the weeks leading up to the election everyone blamed everything possible on the election. The internet is running especially slow today? It’s because the government is controlling the level of internet usage to not let election news out to the world. There is more traffic than usual? Lots of foreigners are flocking in for the election. You couldn’t do your homework? Only because my camera was taken by my mom to get coverage for the NLD rally for the upcoming election. It became a game with me and my friends to try and think of a connection between any occurring problem and the election.
In all serious though, even my school was setting up for a worse case scenario. ISM has a faculty evacuation procedure set that involves flying all of the foreign staff to Bangkok and camping out there until the said even dies down. They even have a plan in case we could never get back that involves packing or securing our belongings and sending our remaining pay home.
Although I would have loved to be out photographing the election events on Nov. 8th we were advised to stay inside and to certainly not go anywhere near the voting locations for fear of a riot. So I will include photos by other photographers here. On the day of Kim and I went to a friend’s gathering to share the excitement with our friends. When we taxied there the roads were completely deserted and every single shop was closed. I have never seen our street so quiet.
As you can imagine, there was a great deal of talk about the elections, especially on social media where my Burmese friends proudly showed off their inked finger - after someone voted they dyed their finger with ink so they couldn’t vote again. There was over an 80% population turn out for voting. Everyone was very excited! After the elections there was also quite a lot of talk about whether or not the elections were actually clean. There were reports of rigging the votes which may or may not have been true.
There was still some very apparent corruption like the fact that the vote of every soldier automatically goes to the military party and how there were people “registered” to vote that have been dead for years (seemingly so the military could just take those votes too). But after everything it was announced just two days later that the NATIONAL LEAGUE FOR DEMOCRACY WON THE ELECTION!!!
Not my photo! Credited to The National
This means that the country finally gets to be run by Aung Sung Suu Ki, the lady of the people. Unfortunately in the Burmese Constitution it says that you cannot be president if you have a foreign spouse or children, which Suu Ki does. The word is that she is going to choose a person that will act as president but will actually just respond to her wishes. I have noticed mixed feelings about this when talking with my Burmese friends. On one side, Yay! Suu Ki is finally in charge, on the other side it seems unethical to have a president that is not actually in charge but just reporting to someone else.
Either way, the officers will be elected and put in office at the beginning of next year. Unfortunately none of the officers will have had any sort of political experience because none of them are a part of the military. It should be an interesting next five years. Also, 25% of the seats automatically go to the military and – get this – in order to change any part of the constitution you need over 75% of the votes.
Nonetheless, the energy in the country is one of hope, excitement, and relief. Myanmar finally has “our lady” leading the country and is looking forward to see what great things will happen. It was a special time to be here and experience this history changing election. Maybe now when I tell people that I am in Myanmar they might know where I mean.
Not my photo! Credited to BBC
Every year ISM chooses one day to celebrate the diversity in our school and our world. International Day involves the entire k-12 school coming together to showcase different cultures around the world. Students dress up in traditional dress representing their heritage or join in to learn about a different culture. A parade was held to show the variety of clothing and countries represented. After, all students and families got to enjoy the booths that each represented country set up. These booths were filled with games, information, and traditional objects available to teach others about the what makes that country different and unique. The PTA provided food of various cuisines and the band played music highlighting different styles. It was a fun and colorful day!
At the end of the month we had a long weekend where we were able to escape to Ngwe Sung, a small beach town about 6 hours West of Yangon. I got so much more than I expected from this trip.
We left late one Wednesday night and endured a twisting and turning and bumpy 6 hour bus ride to arrive at this little bungalow hotel. But every second was worth it when we saw the beauty of the beach. Almost deserted, it stretched lazily for as long as you could see. All along the shore were small restaurants that served up only the freshest seafood for insanely cheap prices. We spent the entire four days lounging in hammocks, playing with our favorite little kids in the sand, swimming in the perfect temperature of the ocean, and enjoying the crashing waves at night with some good friends. Thanksgiving night we enjoyed a seafood feast at a local restaurant with an accompanying fire show.
I’ve never been much of a beach person but the simplicity and calmness that blankets Ngwe Sung is just perfection. Kim and I even got a motorbike one day and spent some time cruising along the quiet ocean roads. With so many places to visit in the world, there are few that I plan to return to but I know that I will see Ngwe Sung again soon.
As I watched fall arrive in New England from afar, I enjoyed a month packed full of goodness. October seemed a little shorter due to the full week-long holiday at the very end, but it was no less demanding. This stretch of time between the beginning of school and the first break is the longest uninterrupted time we are in school all year! We turned over to the second quarter which means that students and teachers are both getting overwhelmed, overworked, and just tired. But I have been uplifted with the great happenings this month, from visiting friends, to photo events, to a trip to Bangkok, it has made October fly by!
The rainy season came back full force in the first two weeks, dumping loads of rain across the city. There were street flooding and rainbow sightings. But soon there was a noticeable coolness in the morning air and the sun didn’t seem quite as scorching during the afternoon. We are all excited about the cooler weather, the upcoming holidays, and the school breaks.
Early in the month I had my very first visitor to Yangon! Megan is a fellow art teacher that I met at an AP Art workshop in Vermont the summer before I moved abroad. She is teaching art in Korea with Emily, a music teacher. They planned a short trip to Myanmar for their October break and stopped in Yangon for the last leg of it. It was so fantastic to show these two around and tell them all about Yangon. We went for Myanmar BBQ, walked the streets, did some souvenir shopping, and visited Shwedagon (the biggest pagoda in Myanmar). We had great conversations comparing living abroad and our different cultures. I only wish they could have stayed longer.
On October 8th I joined a group of photographers to capture some snap shots of our city. Every year Scott Kelby, a world famous photographer, hosts his annual World Wide Photo Walk. It is a time for photographers to get together and take photos of their neighborhood. It is labeled as the "social photography event of the year," as one of the main goals is to bring together a community of people with this common interest. On the single day hundreds of Photo Walks are held across the world with thousands of photographers participating.
The visa situation in Myanmar is very outdated and constantly changing. Even though we live and work here we (myself, Kim, and my coworkers) only have 70 day visas. This means that every 70 days we need to leave and re-enter the country to get a new visa. Other expats I have met have been able to get 6 month, 1 year, or even longer visas that do not require them to leave the country. The only reasoning I can find for the discrepancies is the connection or weight the business has with the government. Either way, it is most certainly a “don’t ask” situation where you must do what you are told.
Last year they revealed the option to get an in-country extension, which means that we could get another 70 days added to our visa without leaving. Kim and I choose to do this for this visa round because we were not planning on leaving the country. We submitted the paperwork to my school in September for them to take care of.
It was the second week of school when the HR office emailed us to say that the extension did not go through. Due to the election coming up (more about that next month) the government was not allowing any visa extensions. With the sensitive nature of the elections, my school did not want to risk us being “illegally” in the country so with four days’ notice they sent us to Bangkok.
Who can be disappointed by a free weekend in Bangkok? Yangon is a difficult city to live in due to the limited modernization so it was wonderful to be able to escape to the modern hub of SE Asia. We left Saturday morning and after an hour flight and a short tram ride we were in the heart of the bustling Bangkok. We spent our time wandering around, visiting a few western grocery stores, popping in a few HUGE shopping malls, trying to find somewhere to fix our external hard drive, and enjoying our western hotel accommodations.
Of course, the majority of our trip revolved around eating! We indulged in deliciously crafted sandwiches, one in particular was a steak sandwich which ended up being a whole steak layered between bread – it was unbelievable. It was difficult to find the “right” place to eat since it was such a special treat, we ended up walking around for an hour or two one night in search for something that would satisfy our high expectations, and I’m so glad that we held out because we stumbled upon the cutest little food truck that served the most scrumptious burgers I believe I have tasted. We continued to gorge ourselves on all of the food that we can’t get in Myanmar: beef, milk, good chocolate, cheese cake, pizza cones, street kebob, etc. Looking back my only regret is that we didn’t drink more milk.
Spending time together was certainly the highlight of the weekend but the entire trip was delightful. It was refreshing to get away and be in a place where we are not gawked at while walking down the street. I can’t wait to do it again soon!
One of my favorite times in the week is when I get a chance to make some art. Through photography, painting, digital work, or something else, creating fills my soul. This month I continued to work on my art journal. This is simply a sketchbook that I have been filling with (mostly) paintings based on what interests me. It is refreshing to work on smaller paintings that don’t have a purpose, taking off a lot of the stress that artists can feel about making a finished product and focusing on just the act of creating. Here are the pages that I finished this month:
The last week of the month was a Buddhist holiday Thadingynt. We had the entire week off of school so Kim and I set off to explore more of Myanmar. We spent half of the week in Bagan and half of the week in Mandalay. I have lots more to tell you about the week and of course bunches to show you but that will need a post of its own. For now here are a few teasers.
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world