Monday, April 30, 2012

Easter concept, check

I think I posted about 10 months ago about how we were going to make an effort to regularly attend church services here, as we found an English speaking congregation (bonus points for being Episcopal) and enjoyed parts of the rambling bishop's sermon (usually about half, then I get lost). I'd been wondering just what William was learning at the Sunday School, but decided not to worry too much focusing instead on the habit of going to church and the elusive skill of sitting still for the eucharistic prayers. The later alone is an uphill battle! Since they always came back from Sunday School with a weekly "parents an me" sheet usually about that week's reading, I figured the two teachers must have some curriculum.

Today, I chanced to overhear a conversation between Wm and a four year old neighbor, who attends the other expat-oriented protestant church. He asked her some question, and she replied, "I don't know, I guess God made it that way." Then:
Friend: "You know about God, right?"
Wm: "Yes, we go to church, too."
Friend: "Well, did you know God - I mean Jesus - died?"
Wm: "Noo. Easter already happened. Jesus is alive again."
Friend: "Oh yeah. I forgot."

Anyway, obviously the Easter concept taught in Sunday School sunk in, and our endeavor to foster a general Christian awareness is taking some roots.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Half way through

Hard to believe, but we're half way through our time in Manila -- even more than half way, once I consider the three months I'll be spending in the US for baby number three's birth. I still get anxious and a bit sad when thinking about HYD and the friends we left there -- maybe that's what's inhibited me from feeling like I've figured out how to "connect" with Manila and left me with a feeling that I'm just existing here (rather than really living here). In any case, here we are, in April 2012 with a scheduled transfer date of April 2013.

Since many family members have asked, I'll explain how we figure out where we go next. The first two assignments were "directed." This means we received a list of all possible jobs (over 100), which we evaluated based on logistical criteria (did the timing work so we didn't have a big gap between posts? would we go over the permitted 'time-in-training' limit?) and personal criteria (two jobs available? can the boys and Bagwelle come? what's the housing/school/child care situation? etc etc). We rank ordered about 25 assignments, and the career development office back in DC slotted us into our positions after considering the State Department's needs and our preferences (compared against all the other bidders' preferences).

From here on out, we "lobby" for our assignments. Meaning, after available jobs are posted, we start contacting various people to express our interest in the jobs we like (i.e., "lobby" for a position). This involves sending out resumes, working contacts, asking colleagues to submit "360 reviews" of our performance, and I'm sure some other aspects I have yet to figure out. We could stay overseas, we could go back to DC - just depends on what the options are, especially because we're looking for two jobs in the same city with relatively the same starting month.

The lobby process officially starts in August when the list is released ... but unofficially starts as early as May when bureaus start to post "projected" positions available. Around late September/early October, we submit our official bid list into the online system, rank ordered, so bureaus have a final list of who wants to go where. Then the bureaus offer "handshakes" - and if we accept a handshake, the assignment is submitted to (and hopefully approved by) "the panel," making us "paneled" into the job.  The exact timeline changes year to year, depending on when tenure and promotion announcements are made (since jobs and people are ranked by level, and bidding "at level" is evaluated differently than a "stretch" position).

If all goes well (i.e., we get a handshake we like), we should know by Thanksgiving where we're headed next. Otherwise, it's back to the drawing board to see what's left and where we might fit best. So, dear family, now you have the explanation of the lingo we'll be using this fall. 

Bagan: Burma/Myanmar Travelogue Part 3 of 4

After Rangoon, we flew to Bagan for two days/two nights. I should add here that we cobbled together our intra-country travel instead of using a travel agent to decide the agenda. While this works well in most countries, in retrospect, going with a travel agent would have been much easier. Phone communication wasn't possible, and email responses took two or three days. No credit cards accepted, so deposits are tricky (some places seem to have found an off shore account work around). While the hotels we stayed at turned out amazing (lived up to its chain name: ), I still would recommend using a travel agent to anyone considering a trip.

Three methods of transport exist for touring the Bagan temples and pagodas: car, horse cart, and bike. Once upon a time - before small kids - and in a different weather climate - i.e., not as hot - we might have chosen bikes. And from reading the guide books, we had been leaning towards a horse cart for the day. On arrival, though, and realizing just how brutally hot  it was in the dry part of the country with few shade trees, we figured the $50/day for car and driver was the wisest choice. Being able to zip between sites, easily get back to the hotel to drop off Patch for a nap (with someone staying with him of course!), and then return quickly in the early evening before either boy suffered a meltdown was key to our enjoyment.

We spent first day seeing just a sampling of the 3,000 temples in the town. My favorite was a climb to the top of one from which we could view the spires. Of course, once we got to the top and realized we had to bring both boys down very steep and uneven steps, a slight fear set in. Patch zoomed down so quickly, Greg could could barely go fast enough. William, thankfully, followed my advice and went slowly and carefully. Needless to say, not a climb or decent that would ever happen in the U.S. with all its liability issues.

The second day we drove to Mt Poppa to climb lots and lots of steps to a hill top monastery. After much cajoling (and some carrying) all six made it to the top, unbitten by the rather aggressive monkeys. Unfortunately, a heat-induced haze clouded our view, so down we went again without too much time at the top.

En route from the hotel to Mt Poppa, we stopped for a demo of making sesame and peanut oil and harvesting and making palm sugar. The small boys got a ride on the oil grinder, while the big boys sampled some palm sugar liquor at 10AM (gack!). Beth and I were in charge of purchases. We also stopped in at a traditional farming community - again, poor, but not miserably destitute. It just looked like that was how the families had been living for generations on end, as if the last 100+ years of "development" had yet to reach this far into the closed country. We shared some dried mango snacks with the kids - a big hit! Though the village kids all gathered round once they realized we'd share a treat, they all waited in turn for one piece, and no one came back for a second. I wish I could have communicated to the parents what great manners the kids had :)

Bagan is also famous for laquerware, so Beth and I toured a laquerware shop which was on its fourth generation. I tried not to think about my human rights portfolio at work of reporting on child labor, since obviously everyone in this extended family - from kids to grandparents - helped the enterprise. The work was quite beautiful, especially a chest special ordered by a visitor from Australia which was almost finished - after 2.5 years of work!

Around sunset of our second evening, we took a one hour horse cart ride to an area unaccessible to cars. An hour was just about right for all of us. Turns out, the carts aren't very comfortable for extended periods of time anyone - age 2 or 32. Plus, by dusk, the temp cooled off enough that being outside was somewhat pleasant.

As always, food was delicious. We ate twice at a cafe run by a French woman settled in Bagan, at an Indian place where the cook's grandparents migrated from India, and at a locally run place. All tasty. Seems like one can't go wrong when it comes to food in this country.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


After 10 years, my ironing board just bit the dust. Technically, the board is still OK, but the legs no longer are able to slide up and down, pretty much rendering it useless to me - though I'm sure someone will happily carry it away from my garbage area within half a day.

I've recently noticed that after almost 10 years of marriage, many of the daily household items we purchased or received around our wedding are starting to show wear, from pots to linens. A decade of use for those items used often is pretty good, but I can't help but think about the old wooden ironing board in my grandfather's basement. I have no idea how old this ironing board - or the electric iron that sits on it - are. At least 25 years, since I can remember my grandma using it to iron on name labels before I went to my first summer camp. I suspect the ironing board is probably closer to 50 or 60. The fact mine only lasted for 10 doesn't really mean much, in comparison.

And yet, some little things around the house have managed to last longer than expected. The best example is the small plastic blue tub Georgetown Hospital gave us as part of our "welcome baby" kit to help bathe newborn William. To date, that article remains the best utensil I've used to rinse shampoo from hair, while simultaneously serving as a bath toy extrodinaire. Probably a $2 piece of plastic from China, but definitely something I'll be packing to bring to the US for baby #3. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Travelogue: Yangon / Rangoon - Part 2 of 4

We spent the first two days and last full day of our time in Burma / Myanmar at Tracy's house. Though we love visiting strange places, as many of you know, visiting Greg's sister was the real impetus of the trip (secondary purpose: leaving Manila during Holy Week when the city becomes a ghost town and all the local resorts jack up prices). We were lucky she was able to take a day off of work to spend with us!

Tracy shares her house with another teacher; they live just two blocks from the school they teach at. The house is well sized, but not enough room for six of us, including Beth and Andrew, so they opted for a hotel, the Sedona Hotel, the closest to Tracy's house. They give it OK reviews - good sized room, good breakfast buffet, but a few problems with service.

We arrived at Tracy's house and then had lunch at  a nearby delicious Chinese/Thai/Burmese restaurant near Tracy's house and then early to bed. When in doubt about what to order, Tracy said just get the Shan noodles - and they were good! Tracy had wanted to show us a nice hotel Sunday brunch buffet - and honestly we wanted to go - but the boys were in the need of some down time after our early morning flight. Luckily, the local food was tasty.

Sunday afternoon we visited Shwedegon Pagoda, the largest temple in the city. One could spend hours wandering around all the small side temples, taking pictures as the sun changes position, watching all the locals going about daily devotions or special occasion rituals. We visited in the late afternoon and early evening, which turned out to be great not just for photos, but also for our feet. One must remove all foot coverings (even socks) and the marble floors would be quite hot in the middle of the day, I think!

Wm and Patch learned how to ring a temple bell and a nice lady taught them how to wash a buddha. Tracy was a bit nervous because she had never seen any foreigners washing the statues, but I figured since the lady was placing a cup in Patch's hand and motioning him how to gently pour it, it was OK. And of course when the big brother saw the little brother do it, he had to try, too. Monkey see, monkey do.

We tried after to go to the big market, but apparently it closes Sunday evening. Ooops! Thankfully, Wm and Patch still had a bit more left in them, so we headed to a nice restaurant, Monsoon. The boys loved the tofu chips and strawberry juice, and then proceeded to chow down on the peanut butter sandwiches I kept in my bag, just in case. The waiter was concerned something was wrong with our food, but I assured him not. I had a very flavorful pumpkin in coconut milk curry, also splitting some stirfried greens with Tracy.

The next morning we got a bit of a late start, since we had to wait around for the travel agents to pay for our flights and hotels to Bagan and Inle Lake. Since one can't use credit cards or bank wire due to the financial sanctions, we had to bring cash. It felt somewhat clandestine, having someone tell Andrew on the phone to give $600 cash to someone who will show up around 10AM wearing blue and yellow. Luckily, he handed the dough to the right person and later that evening the plane tickets (yes, old school paper tickets) arrived.

Then we tried the market again, only to learn it was closed on Mondays. Ooops - should have read the guide book more closely! Luckily, a cute restaurant with spaghetti for Wm (and actually a really tasty tuna sandwich for me - the rest of them ate Asian) was next door. After that, it was time for Patch's nap, so back again to Tracy's house.

The afternoon we took a walking tour of the old city where British buildings - in various states of disrepair or upkeep. This is where we both felt the city resembled Kolkata - the architecture reminiscent of the homeland, but trying to be adapted for a hot, muggy climate. Wide sidewalks, rare in most of south and south east Asia, but welcomed by tourists and many street hawkers selling snacks and books. We saw quite a few copies of George Orwell's Burmese Days - as well as pretty much any thing else you could want.

Sadly, with two hot, sweaty, and dirty boys on our backs, we had to skip afternoon tea at The Strand, the swank hotel where rooms in the high tourist season can run $600 / night. A true colonial masterpiece with teak furniture in all rooms, it is highlighted in all the Travel + Leisure type of "must stay" lists. I actually contemplated staying one night there, since during the hot season one can have a bargain of $175/night. We opted for more time with Tracy, though, so The Strand will have to wait for a visit back :)

After that walk, we caught a taxi to a Burmese cafeteria type of restaurant - where we could look and point for our meal. Much better than reading off of a menu. Fresh fruit juice and lime sodas also much appreciated! In season in April: strawberry, mango, pineapple. Sometimes apple and papaya. No mango yet - those don't come until late June or July, like India. Which makes us wonder how the mango can be a year round fruit in Manila.

The taxi dropped us at the top of Tracy's road; only one gate is open to vehicle traffic in her neighborhood at night. Though this meant we had to walk a few blocks, it also meant we serendipitiously (is that a word?) happened on a sun bear cub. Yes, a real live bear cub, walking on the street, with its keeper, who was feeding it a rice and meat mix from a large steel bowl. At first I slowed, so we could all have a closer look - until reality struck when Patch said, "Mama, up up. Bear is scary." I came to my senses, realizing as cute as the cub might be - IT WAS A BEAR the size of Patch.

Greg later asked what I was thinking (he missed the encounter, having stopped at the grocery store for more bread), and I replied honestly that I thought it was on a leash so it would be OK. Then Greg pointed out a bear on a leash didn't really sound safe either. Touche! Every morning for the rest of the trip, within the first five minutes of waking up, Patch would say some variant of, "I saw a bear. It was scary!" Hope this won't harm any future zoo trips...

[brief interlude - Tuesday/Wednesday in Bagan (part 3). Thursday/Friday in Inle Lake (part 4)]

The last day back, Saturday, we finally made it to the market. Third time is the charm - or should we say "third time lucky," like in the Thomas the Tank Engine books? Greg and Andrew were our designated hagglers - us ladies just chased the boys around, trying to keep them from breaking anything! Andrew finally got a good price for a carved buddha troika (prices ranged from $15 to $55 for the same piece!), Beth found a Burma pig, Greg found me a silver necklace I had seen in Inle Lake but decided not to buy - and then regretted, and we got some tshirts, too. We looked a the gems - the thing to buy - but having zero knowledge on that front (and not to mention no more extra cash on our last day), we kept to the window shopping in that section.

We debated lunch out, but feeling hot and yucky - and having to leave at 3PM for the airport, decided lunch near Tracy's house so Patch could nap was the wisest course of action. A short three days in Yangon / Rangoon, but quite memorable!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Travelogue: Burma / Myanmar - Part 1

I think the best way to structure the blog posts will be in four parts. This first entry will be my overall impressions, and then over the next week will follow three installments for the three places we visited: Yangon/Rangoon, Bagan, and Inle Lake.

On landing, the airport impressed us - the international terminal, at least, is clean and relatively new. The immigration line moved slowly, but the only place I've seen passport control go quickly is Singapore. Our bags had to be x-rayed on exiting the terminal, which was a new experience, but I suppose for a country so isolated, they need to take the duty limits (and taxes) seriously. Tracy was easy to spot with cars ready. The government has obviously put a lot of effort into standing behind the motto posted all over: "Warmly Welcome & Be Kind to Tourist."

Initial impressions reminded me of a cross between Chennai and Kolkata many years ago - in Yangon/Rangoon, the East India Tea Company British influence is readily apparent. Greg and I found ourselves wondering if this is what India was like in the 1950s or 1960s.

While the country is developing (GDP per capita = $2,989 - for other stats, click here), the "poorness" did not feel overwhelming - a strange lack of squalor. No street children at the corners knocking on taxi windows. No street people at all, actually. Even in the villages in the countryside we passed, all the children wore clothing. Either the per capita wealth is relatively well distributed (meaning, with a lack of a middle class, aside from the super wealthy elite, everyone else tends right around the per capita income), or the government does a good job of hiding squalor through population movement control or other measures.

By movement control, I mean just that. Passports of every passenger checked at every airport and at the entrance to the tourist areas we went. We, of course, had no trouble entering each place, but I'm really not sure if a Burmese/Myanma citizen needs permission to vacation within the country.

As in many south east Asian countries, the people we met were all warm and friendly. Perhaps it has something to do with the hot and steamy climate - if you don't have an easy going personality, you'll just be miserable because the weather will make you cranky. At least it did for us - it was HOT. Luckily, Patch still needs at least a 2.5 hour nap every day after lunch, so we had an enforced siesta time right at the peak of the heat. If only Wm would nap, too ... then we all could have slept :)

For all the talk about a closed regime, many people volunteered to talk about politics without even being asked. I never heard anything critical of the government, now that I think about it, but I did hear and see much in support of the opposition leader, whose party reportedly won 43 of 44 seats in a by-election held the day we arrived. The front page of the English newspaper every day had at least three articles of what the president was doing - but world news was reported on the inside pages (my favorite news source quoted? "Online." Whatever that means!). I can't speak to what the Burmese/Myanma papers report - the alphabet is even more curly-qued than Telugu!

Of course, for any foreign service officer, we can't help but evaluate if we'd like a posting there. I think our initial impression is that we'd probably have a fun tour if we ended up there, but we're not sure if it's a place we'd seek out. Benefits:  lots of interesting culture and history to learn; small expat community, so if you like your embassy coworkers and the few other expats with NGOs or schools and such, we'd have an easy time meeting people (Manila is so big and spread out - it's hard here); concerns about personal safety were very low; traffic not very bad. Drawbacks: the isolation; limited availability / high cost of import goods (though we found Skippy peanut butter, so Patch was happy -- and all the fruits and vegetables we ate were delicious, so maybe we wouldn't miss things too much); spotty internet access.