Thursday, November 6, 2008
You can read more here.
I have been in Thailand for over two months now. I spent my first month learning the Thai language at Piammitr language school in Bangkok. Then I moved to Chiang Mai where I am living now. I researched language schools before arriving and indeed the instruction at this school was absolutely first rate. My four week course, three hours per day, was 5700 baht (about $163). The class size was 2-3.
Do I speak Thai now? Absolutely not. I know perhaps 500 words and can make a few sentences. For a native English speaker, Thai is about twice as hard to learn and use as a romance language (but only half as difficult as Japanese, Arabic, Mandarin, or Korean). If you are curious about how difficult any particular language is to learn for a native English speaker, see this link.
Most people that I deal with in Chiang Mai speak some English. However, the difference between knowing something and nothing is big! I feel confident enough to travel around, can talk to a taxi driver, order food at a Thai-language-only Thai food stand, etc.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Tomorrow I am off to coffee country. I am headed to Salento, a beautiful small town surrounded by amazing landscapes and coffee ranches. Hey, someone has to do it! I plan to hang out and down a few "tintos". Tinto literally means red in Spanish, but in Colombia it also means a black coffee. Vino is also tinto here. Coffee is an important part of my life and I want to examine the process up close!
Anyway, I will be writing up and posting some notes on Colombian culture soon (dancing, regionalism, machismo, economics, etc.). I have talked with and observed the people here and learned a lot. Unlike Asia, I can communicate with everyone here and it makes a big difference.
I have been doing a lot of dancing over the last week (both lessons and real dance places). Luckily, the girls that took me dancing were very patient! Also, I took some videos of people dancing here including a stop at a "fonda" which is a traditional countryside dance place. I wish the video quality was better so I am not sure if they are blog-worthy.
I have really enjoyed Medellin -- enough that I might come back to live here for awhile next year.
Every time I think I have advanced in my Spanish something happens to humble me. A Spanish-only speaker calls me on a cheap phone and I can barely hold a conversation. Or I have to ask the waitress to repeat something several times. Sometimes the simplest stuff can be hard to understand in a foreign language.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Here is an excerpt from an article in todays WSJ:
Rebels Flail in Colombia
After Death of Leader
May 28, 2008; Page A1
BOGOTÁ, Colombia -- Last November, a guerrilla commander in the jungles of Colombia wrote a despairing note to his superior, the legendary guerrilla leader known as Manuel Marulanda.
"The [army] operation doesn't let up. The number of troops is enormous," wrote Iván Márquez. "Sometimes we eat once a day."Mr. Márquez's flagging morale, and that of the broader Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group, known as the FARC, has probably deteriorated much further in the past few months. This past weekend, it emerged that Mr. Marulanda, whose given name is Pedro Antonio Marín, died of an apparent heart attack in late March. He was the FARC's leader for four decades.
Mr. Marulanda's death is only the latest blow to the FARC, Latin America's oldest and biggest insurgency. Having been at the gates of Bogotá just five years ago, the group finds itself on the run from an invigorated Colombian military that runs nightly bombing missions. By most estimates, the rebels' ranks have fallen from an estimated 18,000 fighters to about half that level -- ravaged by desertions. The group's command and control structure has been disrupted to the point where rebels hardly ever use mobile phones for fear of being overheard, relying instead on a system they used in 1964: couriers on foot.
The turnaround is a triumph for Colombia's military and President Alvaro Uribe. A driven man whose father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnap attempt in 1983, Mr. Uribe was elected Colombia's president in 2002 and vowed to bring the Communist group and other insurgents to heel. His success on that score is a big reason why his approval ratings top 85%.
It is also a largely unsung victory for the U.S., which has lavished nearly $4 billion in mostly military aid on Colombia during the past five years and helped retool the country's army from a demoralized and static force into a powerful fighting machine. At a time when the U.S. has struggled to defeat insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the progress in its own backyard against a powerful drug-fueled Communist insurgency is a noteworthy achievement.
"The U.S. took us by the hand and showed us how to do things," says a high-ranking Colombian military officer. "None of these successes could have been possible without the United States."
March may have been a tipping point for the rebels. During that month, the FARC lost three members of its seven-man ruling Secretariat -- a stunning development considering the rebel group had not lost a single member of its Secretariat to battle in 44 years of warfare. Aside from losing its founder, the FARC's second in command, Luis Eduardo Devia, known as Raúl Reyes, was killed in a controversial cross-border bombing raid in Ecuador by Colombia's army. A week later, Iván Rios, a rising star in the FARC, was murdered by his trusted bodyguard, who then cut off his hand to ensure he would get a $2.5 million bounty offered by the Colombian government.
Another blow was the recovery of thousands of incriminating files found in the computers of Mr. Reyes which show a relationship between the guerrillas and several regional leaders, especially Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez. The files suggest that Mr. Chávez has a strategic plan to put his oil-financed political muscle and millions of dollars in economic aid behind the FARC. The Venezuelan government has denounced the files as fake. But Interpol has analyzed the computers and declared that the Colombian government hasn't tampered with them. In any case, the uproar over the files would likely discourage major gestures of aid from Venezuela in the future.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
OK, I finished three weeks of Spanish school in Cartegena. And I also learned the basics of Merengue and Salsa dancing but probably not quite good enough to just show up at a discoteca and start dancing with locals -- although I did dance with some gringas who were also learning the dances. Cartagena was very hot, even for a tropical boy like me, with a high each day of about 35/95, although the nights with the cool breeze from the ocean were just gorgeous. The Colombian family that I lived with was nice and I was able to communicate with them much better after a few weeks.
I made so many good friends at Spanish school, both Colombians and other foreigners from all over the world studying here just like me. We took some trips out of town together and I hope to post some pictures soon.
A bit over a week ago I moved to the beautiful city of Medellin which has a much more moderate climate. The high temperature each day probably averages about 23/74 this time of year, the rainy season. But it has been raining a lot here, especially in the late afternoon.
My Spanish has definitely improved. I can read magazines and newspapers pretty easily. And I can watch a Spanish subtitled movie and watch it and understand it. I can communicate most ideas in Spanish pretty easily. But I cannot understand Colombians talking at full speed, not even close really, nor can I watch a Spanish movie without Spanish subtitles and understand most of it. But I can have long conversations without much pause if they are willing to slow down.
It is probably easier for me to get around a country like this than the USA because there are more buses and transportation options here, I can communicate and ask questions even if I have to ask them to repeat what they just said, and transportation and lodging are cheaper. That being said, I have found Colombia to be somewhat more expensive that southeast Asia. And many fewer people here speak English. I could not imagine traveling here without at least basic Spanish.
Yes, the rumors are true, the women here are gorgeous. And they tend to paint on their clothes, especially jeans which seem to be the outfit of choice. On Friday evening four of us are going out (two guys, two Colombian girls) for a dancing night on the town. Hmmm . . . I am thinking of taking more dancing lessons before then as they are really good!
So far, it has been generally safe here. About what I would have expected. I do know two foreigners who got drugged (drinks spiked) and then got their wallets stolen (they woke up hours later in a random hotel lobby, they are fine now) but, then again, they got into the car of someone they met at a bar at 1 AM in the morning. There does not appear to be much police corruption here compared to other countries. Generally, people can walk at night here without issues. Based on my travel experience, I think that Quito and Rio de Janeiro are both much more dangerous. OK, that is it for now, more later.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
First, I use Skype. Skype's basic service is free and allows you to call anyone else using Skype on their computer. However, I pay Skype $5 per month for their combined SkypeIn and SkypeOut plans. This gives me the ability to call any phone in the world from Skype, landline or mobile phone. It also gives me a USA phone number (which is indistinguishable from an "ordinary" phone number). I can forward that phone number to any other number in the world. And I can retrieve the voicemail from that number anywhere I can get online. When I am originating a call in the USA, all long distance calls within the USA are free. While traveling, I can call anyUSA phone from any internet cafe (or from a laptop) for a little over 2 cents per minute. In fact, I am so happy with the service so far that I intend to keep my SkypeIn USA phone number for the rest of my life. It is the one number someone can know that can always reach me, no matter where I am traveling.
When I am at home in the USA, I use a Philips Skype Phone This slick device rings at my house when someone calls my Skype USA phone number. I do not need to have my computer on or running Skype in order to send or receive Skype calls. I use it at home just like anyone else uses an ordinary landline.
Since I seem to only be in the USA a few months per year, I got a pay-as-you-go mobile phone plan from T-mobile (10 cents per minute). For $40 I got a sim card and and excellent quad band phone from them. After I had used it a month I asked them to "unlock" it for me. This means that I can use other sim cards in that same phone, not just sim cards from T-mobile. By having a pay-as-you-go plan, I pay no charges when I am outside of the country like I would on a regular mobile phone contract. Most phones bought in the USA from a telecom provider come locked to that provider and you must request for them to be unlocked.
When I call friends from home, I just use my Skype phone instead of using my mobile minutes on my mobile phone.
When I visit another country, I take out the T-mobile sim card and purchase a local sim card. This costs anywhere from about $1 to $7, in my experience, and usually includes some talk minutes. So then I have a local phone number in the country I am visiting. I buy call time on a per minute basis by buying mobile phone cards for whatever telecom provider I am using at a 7-11 or wherever they are available. So then I have an easy way to keep in touch with locals and to call ahead for hotel reservations or whatever I need. When I have traveled in developing countries, the mobile phone is really the only way to keep in touch with locals -- many do not have an email address or regular internet access. Instead, they use text messages and mobile phone calls to keep in touch.
Then I will usually forward my USA Skype number to my mobile phone number. I will incur Skype charges from the USA to the country where I am visiting. Usually, this is pretty cheap. For instance, it is about 10 cents per minute to call Thailand or Colombia this way. So let's say a friend is calling me from the USA on their mobile phone. They dial my US Skype number and my phone rings in Colombia. My total cost will be the Skype USA to Colombia charges plus my per minute charges on my Colombia mobile phone. This will probably total about 15 cents per minute. This also means that I do not need to notify friends of new mobile phone numbers for each country that I visit (or explain how to dial into that country), there is one easy way to reach me by calling my regular USA Skype number. This is also a good phone number to give for your financial accounts.
Why Colombia, of all places? Well, there are a lot of reasons.
One of my longtime goals has been to become fluent in Spanish. I speak it OK now but I would like to move up the curve significantly. So a couple of months in a country where few speak English should really help me to speak and understand better. I will spend the first couple of weeks in Cartagena in Spanish language school. I will also be living with a Colombian family and taking daily dance lessons (salsa, samba). After that, I plan to tour the country independently by bus.
Colombia is much safer than it used to be. A decade ago Colombia was probably one of the most dangerous places in the world to visit. However, since President Uribe was first elected 6 years ago (and reelected by a huge landslide two years ago), there has been a complete turnabout. Violent crime has plummeted. The murder rate in Medellin is down over 90%. The groups who were in violent opposition to the government are shadows of their former selves. Tourism has almost tripled in the last three years. The secret is out and many more people are visiting. In fact, I would say that Colombia is probably about as safe as an average South American country now (which means, however, that it is still much more dangerous than the USA or Southeast Asia).
Colombia has the second largest population in South America after Brazil. Colombia has the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world after Mexico. Colombia is America's closest ally in South America and has enacted policies that have reduced economic protectionism, crime, and corruption. Economic growth has accelerated to 7% per year.
I plan to "go native" on this trip. That means no English language reading material except for a guidebook (since it is only available in English). I will still think in English sometimes when I talk with fellow Anglo travelers, use the internet, and write my blog, but I intend to keep to Spanish as much as possible. In fact, I just bought my first Spanish novel the other day -- an interesting book targeted at middle to high schoolers rather than adults which makes it mostly comprehensible to me. OK, wish me luck! This trip is a stretch for me and I will need all of your support!
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
It is hard for me to describe my experiences in a blog. I really only touch the surface here and it makes me feel like I am cheating readers, not to mention that I really don't take that many pictures, and if I tried to document everything it would be a book and then some. I really don't describe many of my ordinary day to day activities, like wonderful time spent with friends, as I should.
But I do hope to add a few more stories and pictures after I return to the USA where I will probably have more spare time. I still have some amazing experiences from Myanmar to share.
Playing with the kids at a Myanmar monastery where we spent the night:
Also, I am sure that I will have some serious reflecting to do as the culture shock of returning to the USA and leaving Asia hits me head on. And I guess I might have to wear long pants sometimes, at least if my weather.com checks of California weather are not lying to me.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
I first looked at Andy's web site about five years ago. It opened my eyes to the fact that international travel did not have to be expensive at all -- in fact, it is often cheaper than just living in one place in the USA. I had always wanted to travel more and realized that it was easily within my grasp to see the world. People in the West have this idea that vacations have to be expensive or luxurious -- but for me that is not the best way to travel because it would mean that my vacations would have to be short and spending all that cash creates a barrier between me and the local people. Most package tourists end up spending a lot of money and only meeting English speaking hotel staff without much exposure to the local culture.
Well, naturally, I had always wanted to meet Andy -- but he refuses most meeting requests since he gets so many. But we had some interests in common and had communicated over time on a number of topics and so Dave and I met with Andy and his girlfriend in Bangkok. Andy is starting a new web site called hobohideout that allows hotel owners to easily catalog their hotels on the internet and he wanted to bounce some ideas off of techie travelers.
Andy is a person who says exactly what he thinks and is never, ever politically correct and so the conversations can get entertaining! I should mention that there is no picture of Andy here since he has a no picture policy -- when he criticizes places or people he will sometimes get threats and so he chooses to maintain some privacy.
I met with Andy several more times after Dave left. Andy knows everything about how Google's cataloging of web sites works and he even outsources most of the techie work to a programmer that he has groomed in India giving him lots of spare time. I felt like he had a good head for business and was a good salesman like most successful businessmen.
After meeting with Andy, I realized that I am sometimes too introverted when I travel and I am often not frank enough in my own writing and speaking. Well, those are things I need to work on ;-) Anyway, I felt like Andy really enjoyed talking with us and he made plenty of time to discuss whatever we wanted. Thanks, Andy!
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Anyway, as we were leaving Myanmar, in Elena's baggage I could not help but notice a wad of carefully wrapped Myanmar stogies!!
There is just something about meeting Americans on the road that I love (and I meet so few). And D.J. and Catherine had great insight into Burmese culture and what it is like to live and work around the world. They also both speak passable Mandarin. Their next post is Hong Kong starting in late summer. Thanks so much for your hospitality!
By the way, I have had various friends over the years who were teachers in the USA. One thing that I have suggested to them is that a great way to make money and expose your kids to different cultures and a great education is to make a living as international teachers. You can save most of your salary since the schools usually provide your housing (and many other things) in addition to providing you with a generous salary. Most worldwide international schools teach their curriculum in English. They get the summers off (and usually a plane ticket home is provided for you and your family).
Monday, February 18, 2008
We scored some decent winter caps (Myanmar can get cold!) there for the equivalent of 60 US cents.
Many small restaurants do not have generators. Elena and I were desperate for Indian food (OK, it was mostly me!) and the only one open in the small town of Nyaung Shwe did not have a generator -- but the food was great! Here I am sitting at our table waiting for the food (we were the only customers) -- hey, you gotta have a sense of humor about these things . . .
A typical scenario in a smaller town was that a restaurant would be dark until someone showed up. As we were being seated, we would hear someone start the generator in the back and the lights would go on. We expected that to happen at this restaurant but we realized after awhile that we would be eating by candlelight.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
The real irony is that this was probably the best time possible to visit Myanmar. Myanmar is actually a very safe country, much safer than many other countries that I have visited. If you want good reasons to not visit Myanmar, transportation hassles, lack of reliable electronic communication, and power outages would have to be at the top of the list whereas safety is not an issue at all.
You just gotta love this transportation! I must be smiling because of all that money I am saving! Cheap, comfortable transport -- I am in the zone!
As our trip progressed, Elena started counting different forms of transportation that we took on this Myanmar trip and she counted at least fifteen. We pretty much took every form of land and water transport powered by motors, animals or humans.
We met two lovely 12 year old girls there at the bottom of the hill who were selling postcards:
These girls went with us up the steps of the hill and the temple, about an hour walk. What struck us about them is that they were so incredibly joyful about life. They both no longer attend school due to lack of funds and so raise money for their families by selling postcards. So many people in the world who have so much more are unhappy but these girls really lifted our spirits by their wonderful attitude about life and you can see it in their pictures. Here they are with Elena and then me:
Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention that that white substance on so many people's faces. It is called Thanaka
Thanaka is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground wood. In Myanmar, it is commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls and to a lesser extent men and boys. The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand.The wood of several trees (collectively called thanaka trees) may be used to produce thanaka cream; these trees grow abundantly in central Myanmar.
Thanaka cream has been used by Burmese women for over 2000 years. It has a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood. The creamy paste is applied to the face in attractive designs, the most common form being a circular patch on each cheek, sometimes made stripey with the fingers known as thanaka bè gya, or patterned in the shape of a leaf, often also highlighting the bridge of the nose with it at the same time. It may be applied from head to toe (thanaka chi zoun gaung zoun). Apart from cosmetic beauty, thanaka also gives a cooling sensation, provides protection from sunburn, helps remove acne, promotes smooth skin, and is an anti-fungal.
As we were lingering on the top of the hill in the temple, we met a monk named Nan Shave. He approached us as he is learning English and wanted to talk. He had been a monk for many years and his family would come from the countryside to visit him from time to time -- they were currently visiting and he was showing them around the temple. Well, Nan Shave wanted to show Elena and I his monastery a few kilometers away so we could not resist.
Here I am sitting next to Nan Shave near his room at the monastery. In the background are his family, some novice monks, and other visitors that day.
Basically, everyone in this room except Nan Shave was afraid to speak and they hung on every word that I would say. No one spoke much English except for Nan Shave and he would try to translate. What we found in Myanmar is that men are very friendly but that women do not speak to strangers much.
Here are some students learning Pali from a senior monk. Pali is the ancient sanscrit language used to record the Buddhist scriptures:
Some pictures of the monastery:
No one can wear shoes inside a pagoda, temple, or in many areas of a monastery.
Nan Shave actually took us to several other directly adjacent monasteries and introduced us to several other English speakers. I felt like a rock star at times as people peppered me with questions about English and America. My French friend, Elena, felt quite left out at times!
We asked where we could give a donation to help the local people and Nan Shave walked us to a school for orphaned and abandoned girls where we were able to donate money after they gave us a tour through the school. Afterwards, we ate a modest dinner together. It was all quite moving and a day that will not soon be forgotten . . .
But my favorite piece of writing has always been the following, written by Sullivan Ballou to his wife during his service in the American Civil War. It simultaneously evokes a sense of duty, honor, patriotism, love and eternity, and it has never left me:
July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .
Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .
Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.