Thursday, November 6, 2008

One of my heroes just died

I don't know about you, but I don't have very many heroes in my life. But one of my heroes just died, Michael Crichton. He was my favorite author and sold over 150 million books. He became an amazing expert on every topic he approached and backed up his opinions with facts and was never afraid to buck the popular trends of his day. In fact, he is the only person to ever have the #1 TV show, #1 bestselling book, and #1 movie simultaneously in America. His success was not happenstance but emerged from the talent and character of this amazing man.

You can read more here.

Living in Thailand

I am a lazy blogger, I admit it! I returned to the USA in late June after a memorable trip to Colombia. I definitely plan to return there next year!

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

Off to Coffee Country

Well, I have not blogged much from Colombia. You will just have to come see for yourself, ha ha ;-)

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

Colombia is rapidly improving

The policital and security situation in Colombia has radically improved in the last five years and even in the last year. The paramilitaries, which were privately created armies to maintain order in chaos, have largely disbanded. And now FARC, the revolutionary resistance to the government for years, is getting weaker by the month. The USA now has a strong ally in South America with rapidly improving political instititions and a 7% real economic growth rate.

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

Colombia update

Friends, it has been awhile since I updated my blog and for that I apologize. Life has kept me busy and a little lazy here!

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

Telecommunications for Frequent Traveler

How does an international traveler handle telecommunications on the cheap?

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.

Project Colombia

I have enjoyed seeing many friends and family since I returned home to America last month. OK, enough of the easy life, time for some more adventure! I am leaving again in ten days for the country of Colombia, in South America. I plan to stay there for about 8 weeks.

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

I am coming home soon

I have received a number of emails in the last few weeks of the flavor -- gee, Travis, I know you are having a great time and all -- but are you ever going to come back home? Well, I am pleased to announce that I have bought a return ticket to the USA and will arrive on Thursday, March 6. This will be about a 30 hour door to door odyssey and the cost was around $700. My first destination will be the San Francisco Bay Area to see some friends and then a few days later I am flying "home" to the San Diego area.

My main priorities will be spending time with family and friends. Logistical life issues include doing my taxes, setting up a proper mail forwarding address, making some minor portfolio tweaks, quickly getting a pay-as-you-go mobile phone plan set up with a new quad band phone, and planning my next few trips this year.

My brilliant and beautiful sister Pam has signed me up for the Carlsbad 5K (50 kilometers north of San Diego) in early April -- a race that her and my cousin Michelle will also be running. This will give me an incentive to get back in running shape right away (self respect and shameful hubris wouldn't allow me to lose to girls from my own family!).

I flew back to Chiang Mai, Thailand (in the north of the country) yesterday and I have already been having a blast here with friends. I definitely love this place and it will be hard to leave. The people and the weather are just wonderful here.

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 checks of California weather are not lying to me.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hobo Traveler

Before leaving for Myanmar, Dave and I met Andy, the man behind the well known hobotraveler web site (and the hobotraveler blog). Who is Andy? Well, Andy quit working a normal job around 11 years ago when he was about 40 years old. He decided to start traveling and he has never stopped since then. He comes back to the US for a few weeks every year. He documents his travels and budget travel tips on his web site. At first he was traveling on the super cheap, like maybe for 5000 dollars per year. But he started generating income from his web site and now he is able to travel much more comfortably. Andy's web site now gets over 10,000 unique readers every day!

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

Elena smokes a Myanmar stogie

Myanmar makes some interesting little cigars called cheroots that some folks there seem to relish. They are made everywhere. Elena decided to smoke one (I have never smoked even a single cigarrete and was not about to start now!). She said they were actually OK! Well, you be the judge:

We encountered these in a hut in a small native village near Lake Inle.
Cheroot is one of the distinctive icons of Myanmar. These cigars are made with a blend of tobacco and fragrant wood chips, then rolled up using a dried green leaf called the 'tha nat phet'. After adding a filter made of corn husks, the cheroot is ready to be smoked and is without the addition of harsh chemicals. They are mostly hand made by women in the Inle Lake region.

Anyway, as we were leaving Myanmar, in Elena's baggage I could not help but notice a wad of carefully wrapped Myanmar stogies!!

Meeting D.J. and Catherine in Yangon

Our trip to Myanmar was bookended by dinners with D.J. and Catherine. D.J. is principal of the International School of Yangon and Catherine is the librarian. They have worked their way around the world by holding teaching positions in many countries. We first met through the couchsurfing web site.

Here we are for our first dinner in a fancy Yangon Restaurant (total bill of $32, including tip, that is about as expensive as it gets in Myanmar ;-):

Here is our dinner at their house on our last night in Myanmar:

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

The power is out again

As I mentioned earlier, consisent power is a problem everywhere in Myanmar. So at night it can gets quite dark around town. Here is a picture of the night market in the large town of Mandalay. The market had a few portable generators for power and used fluorescent lighting:

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

Hair cut and transport in Yangon

In Yangon we met Kaun, a tour guide looking for work:
As we toured the country, we were approached by several people who were tour guides. But unlike in some other countries that we visited, none of them were really scam artists. They were genuinely trying to help and make a little money in exchange for useful information. The decline of tourism has really hurt the ordinary people here. In fact, it was a unanimous opinion of both the Burmese and expats that we talked with that the economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar do nothing to change the political situation and only cause suffering among the local people.

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.
We went for a tea with Kaun (a common activity here; tea shops are everywhere and we partook frequently) and he offered to help us with any of our needs at no financial obligation (naturally, we ended up giving him something). He also wrote us a list of recommended accomodations at each of our future stops in Myanmar. Well, I desperately needed a haircut -- I was so busy in Bangkok in my last few days there that I failed to get one before leaving. Elena wanted to call her father to let him know she was OK (her father does not have email). So first we went to the hair stylist:
Hey, at these prices, let's throw in a wash, too!
Long distance calls out of the country cost in the neighborhood of three dollars per minute (even more from our guesthouse). Elena wanted to call her dad to let him know she was OK since he does not do email. Well, she called and got some French guy, but definitely not her dad (or his phone, it was a different number). They verified that the correct number was indeed dialed so we paid the three dollars anyway. Communications are just not reliable here.
During our initial tours around Yangon, we found that we could get just about anywhere in the city for less than two US dollars in Khat. We took a picture of one of the cabs -- hey it got us from Point A to Point B! (Techie note: that is NOT a GPS on the front dashboard but just a picture ;-)

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.

Let's meet some locals

Elena and I visited the city of Mandalay near the center of the country. It is a mostly flat city with a single hill overlooking it called Mandalay Hill. And sitting atop the hill, as on almost every majestic hill in this country, is a Buddhist Pagoda. And there are numerous pagodas on the way up the hill. Buddhist culture runs deep in this country and there are pagodas and monks everywhere. According to tradition, one can make up for a lifetime of sins if you build enough pagodas . . . and so you can see why there are so many . . .

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.[1][2][3] The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand.[2][3]

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.[2][5] 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 . . .

Off Topic: Literature on the Road

One thing that I have enjoyed about traveling is that it lends itself to reading some solid literature. There is always downtime while traveling as you rest and relax or while you are on transport. I have done a lot of reading on this trip. I just finished George Orwell's Burmese Days, his first novel, during my trip in Myanmar. It was brilliant and helped me understand that country and its people better. Michael Crichton's autobiography, Travels, helped me to understand how travel might open one's mind to the ideas of different cultures via first hand experience with them. I am currently reading Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian, a brilliant historical novel about life in the British Navy in the early 19th century, etc.

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.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Initial Impressions of Myanmar

As our guesthouse mini-van brought us from the Yangon airport to our guesthouse across town, the alien sights of this country attacked our senses. Men going about their business wearing long skirts called longyis, faces plastered with a white paste I had never seen before, a mixture of cars with steering wheels on the left and right sides, pot-holed roads, monks walking about in their robes, and the sweaty temperature of this city as the morning sun quickly rose along with the temperature. I could tell this was going to be an adventure, I just was not sure whether it would be an epic adventure or one to forget.

That afternoon we made our way down to the central market to change money. The "official" exchange rate is a joke and no one actually exchanges money except on the black market. And the only money generally accepted for exchange here is the US dollar, preferably large denominations for the best rate. There are no ATMs in Myanmar and we never did see anywhere that accepted traveler's checks or credit cards (apparently the latter can only be done by proxy by a Thai affiliate for the few businesses with such a capability). So the US dollars that you bring into the country on your person, all in cash, are all that you are going to be able to spend on your visit here -- there is no other way for a tourist to get money from outside the country. In fact, it is not even legal for Myanmar citizens to save dollars although this is ignored by everyone. For our first money change, we changed a single US $100 dollar bill for 124,500 Kyat (pronounced like Chat). So we received 124 bills of denomination 1000 and a single bill of 500 denomination. This amount of money does not fit into your pocket and you feel like a Colombian drug lord carrying around such a wad of cash.

The wad of Khats in the picture below is worth less than $50 US dollars. We never did see any larger denominations.

One of our early observations was that there are almost no foreign brands here. Even Coca-Cola is imported from Thailand and the words on the can are in Thai sanscrit writing. We never did see a Western chain store of any kind during our visit.

The power was out for most of the day at our guesthouse (which was quite nice at $10 per night), but they have a generator that they often run which is fine except that it does not power the A/C. Any business worth their salt here has a generator. That first evening when we went out, we were shocked to see that the city is mostly dark. We could hear generators which were apparently the power source for most of the scant lighting that we saw. Power is a scarce commodity here, especially consistent power. Even routine walks at night require a torch lamp (thankfully provided by my former co-workers as a going away gift!) If it was like this in the country's wealthiest city, where the Burmese generals who control the country live in relative opulence, what would it be like in the rest of the country?

Although during the anti-government protests in September the media and internet were mostly shut off, I was able to view BBC broadcasts in our guesthouse. Internet access is spotty in the country and accessing email sites requires using proxies which every internet cafe we visited knew exactly how to set up. A mobile phone sim card costs about US $2500 here meaning that almost no one has one. In reality, more outside media broadcasts are allowed here in Myanmar than in a tightly controlled country like China which I discovered during my visit there still maintains a shocking amount of control over the fundamental freedoms of its people.

As we toured the country, the Myanmar that began to emerge is a country where the people are incredibly warm and friendly, a people who have a deep and special admiration for the USA and the beacon of freedom that it represents to them, and a people that thoroughly understand the situation with their oppressive government even if there is nothing that they can do about it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Off to Myanmar expect Radio Silence

Well, I am off to Myanmar in just a few hours. I doubt there will be much internet access there, especially to blog sites, so I do not expect to be able to post any entries until I return to Thailand around February 12.

I have been in Bangkok for a couple of weeks but have not posted much about my time here! That will change after I return ;-) I did meet several times with Andy of and his personality is truly larger than life, more on that later ;-)

Today, I met my travel partner, Elena, for the first time. Previously, we had only communicated over the internet starting way back in August -- Elena had been interested in finding a travel partner to Myanmar instead of traveling alone and the timing of our visit matched perfectly.

There have been a lot of protests in Myanmar recently and so internet access is severely limited there. I had heard that they are rejecting one in five visa applicants (if they even suspect your visit is press-related you are rejected) so I was relieved that I got a proper tourist visa without any problems. So if I do not break radio silence for awhile please do not be concerned.

Myanmar is a country where time has stood still. There are virtually no ATMs there or locations where credit cards are accepted. One needs to enter the country with a pile of US dollars and that is how much you will be able to spend because there is really no easy way to access outside funds there. Even the local currency cannot be used in many places and can only be exchanged for a fair rate at local markets with US dollars. But this is part of what makes Myanmar so interesting -- it is a chance to see a place in the world as it was fifty years ago. And the temples built on the plains near Bagan almost a millenium ago rival Cambodia's Angkor Wat as the greatest ruins of southeast Asia.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Future of travel: sharing information?

The US and Canada share their complete criminal databases with each other -- Canada pulls up a complete background check on every border crossing. Is this the future of cross-border travel?

"Going to Canada? Check your past. Visitors with minor criminal records turned back at border "
Article link:

Going to Canada? Check your past
Visitors with minor criminal records turned back at border

There was a time not long ago when a trip across the border from the United States to Canada was accomplished with a wink and a wave of a driver's license. Those days are over.

Take the case of 55-year-old Lake Tahoe resident Greg Felsch. Stopped at the border in Vancouver this month at the start of a planned five-day ski trip, he was sent back to the United States because of a DUI conviction seven years ago. Not that he had any idea what was going on when he was told at customs: "Your next stop is immigration.''

Felsch was ushered into a room. "There must have been 75 people in line," he says. "We were there for three hours. One woman was in tears. A guy was sent back for having a medical marijuana card. I felt like a felon with an ankle bracelet.''

Or ask the well-to-do East Bay couple who flew to British Columbia this month for an eight-day ski vacation at the famed Whistler Chateau, where rooms run to $500 a night. They'd made the trip many times, but were surprised at the border to be told that the husband would have to report to "secondary'' immigration.

There, in a room he estimates was filled with 60 other concerned travelers, he was told he was "a person who was inadmissible to Canada.'' The problem? A conviction for marijuana possession.

Canadian Government link (which confirms the surprising information in this article):

How hard is it to learn a new language?

Here is an interesting link on how long it takes to acquire fluency in particular foreign languages for native English speakers with a good aptitude for language acquisition:

If you go to the link, they carefully define fluency levels. It appears that there are three classes of languages when analyzed as to how difficult it is to learn to both speak and read them for a native English speaker. The easiest class of languages (mostly romance languages) takes about 600 hours to achieve fluency. The second class of languages takes about 1100 hours and the third class of languages takes about 2200 hours.

Thai, like the majority of languages, falls into the second class. However, it has an asterisk next to it, meaning that it is a bit more difficult than most languages in the second class. But it is not nearly as difficult as Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese, for instance.

So, according to this chart, it takes about twice as many hours to achieve fluency in Thai as it does to achieve fluency in a romance language.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Goodbye Dave!

Well, Dave and I had a great time in Thailand and Malaysia. Unfortunately, all good things must (?) come to an end so Dave flew home on Friday from Bangkok to return to the good old USA after five weeks of travel together. Dave called me from the airport and said he had had the trip of a lifetime. And it really was!

Like good software engineers, here we are carefully studying the documentation before entering the temple: A little sweat in this picture taken in warm Thailand. It takes a typical person 5 to 7 days to accomodate themselves to a hot climate. Among other things, after your body adjusts your sweat will contain less salt. Dave called me from Northern California after his return to the USA and mentioned how cold it felt there and was surprised at how much his body had adjusted to the warmer temperatures in Thailand and Malaysia.

Thanks, Dave, for all the great friendship and memories!

The Oracle and the Shaman

During our time in Chiang Mai both Billy and Don had great advice for us on almost every aspect of Thai culture and living abroad -- the kind of detailed, worldy advice you just can't get from a book. When Dave and I would be discussing things later, we noticed that we kept referring back to their advice. At one point, we started referring to Billy as the "Oracle" and Don as the "Shaman."

Here I am receiving some words of wisdom from the Oracle on USA tax residency issues over Mexican food. This took place during a weekly ex-pat luncheon that takes place in Chiang Mai.

Here is the Shaman during a nice dinner out with the gang. OK, maybe his advice was a little erratic after a few glasses of wine ;-) We had walked to this local family restaurant but it was closed. We knocked on the door and they recognized Don and they opened the restaurant up just for us. The food was wonderful!
Here I am holding one of the Shaman's sacred implements during one of our chat discussions in the foyer outside of his guesthouse room:
Thanks to the Oracle and the Shaman for all the great advice!

Working out again

I have started working out again. When I left the US for this trip, I was in top running condition. But, for various reasons, it is hard for me to go running while I am traveling from place to place and especially if I am traveling with someone else. I can't run within two hours of eating, I need to find a mostly traffic free and safe path to run, I can't run when it is too hot, I need to shower and change afterwards, etc.

But when I settle into a routine at one location, I can usually find a proper place to run and fit it into my schedule. I found a great location in Chiang Mai and my fitness really improved after running about five or six times. Here in Bangkok I found a nearby asphalt track to run on that is over a kilometer in circumference and I went running there earlier. Although it is much warmer in Bangkok, I can still get a good workout here.

I tend to run in the very late afternoon or early evening time before it gets dark. It has cooled down a bit by then. I think most Thais run in the early morning. In fact, at the asphalt track in Bangkok I saw perhaps a thousand Thais out and about but not one other person running besides myself. And when I run I basically work out at top speed -- my race times are not much faster than my workout times -- and I am much bigger than the average Thai male. So I think when the Thais see this Westerner running lap after lap at top speed in the late afternoon heat they are thinking that perhaps he is a bit loco.

New Year's Eve in Chiang Mai

We spent New Year's Eve in beautiful Chiang Mai. We started the evening off with a wonderful dinner at Pom Pui Italian restaurant, eating under the stars (almost all Thai restaurants are open air). Here are Dao, Don, Travis, and Dave:
Then we walked over to Taepa Gate which is like a super-mini-Times-Square. The atmosphere there was wonderful!

The sky was filled with these "fire balloons" and naturally we had to join in on the action:
Then we strategically located ourselves on the second floor of a Starbucks overlooking the action. They had a patio where we could see everything. There were fireworks bursting in the air; everyone was excited but well behaved and it was a wonderful experience!!
By the end of the evening we were a bit tired but happy that 2008 was upon us:
One year ago I never dreamed that I would be seeing in 2008 in Thailand in perfect weather with both familiar and new friends. 2007 was a huge year of transition for me: quitting my job, moving from the Bay Area, taking a long trip abroad . . . what a year 2007 was! I thank God everyday for the many blessings in my life.

Institutionalized piracy

Southeast Asia is a place where you can "get things." One of these things is pirated movies and software. We found an entire mini-mall in Chiang Mai pretty much dedicated to pirated goods. In fact, there are several malls there like this:
You can walk the aisles of these stores and get expensive software packages for an average of about 100 baht each:

Have you downloaded a trial version of software that expired? Don't worry, these gurus will make it work permanently for a very low price. Do you have an illegal copy of Windows? Yes, that's right, there is "Windows Legitimizer" available for a small fee.

You can purchase a CD of music for about 10 baht (US 30 cents) and 7 baht per CD in quantity. There are huge English and Thai language printouts which list virtually any music you could want and from these books you can assemble a portfolio of music to be burned on CDs. Any movie you can think of is a bargain on DVD. Whatever they don't have will be prepared for you by tomorrow.

Felling guilty yet? Don't worry, even the monks are doing it ;-)

Of course, trademarks are not protected as well here, either. This one is from Malaysia:

But this image from Bangkok shows that even McDonald's is changing a little with the times:
Dispensing with the humor, this really is bad for Thailand's economy in the long run. It reduces their chances to participate in the information revolution. And there is not much legitimate stuff for sale here -- it is not even available. So Thailand's appeal as a target market for movies, music, and software is vastly reduced.

It reminds me of this exchange from the Shawshank Redemption, a movie about a man who was incarcerated after being falsely accused of killing his wife and her lover. In this exchange, two prisoners discuss a much older prisoner who has spent so much time there that he would not be able to survive in the real world:

RED: Heywood, enough. Ain't nothing wrong with Brooksie. He's just institutionalized, that's all.

HEYWOOD: Institutionalized, my ass.

RED: Man's been here fifty years. This place is all he knows. In here, he's an important man, an educated man. A librarian. Out there, he's nothing but a used-up old con with arthritis in both hands. Couldn't even get a library card if he applied. You see what I'm saying?

FLOYD: Red, I do believe you're talking out of your ass.

RED: Believe what you want. These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. After long enough, you get so you depend on 'em. That's "institutionalized."

JIGGER: Shit. I could never get that way.

ERNIE: Say that when you been inside as long as Brooks has.

Thailand is completely dependent on piracy to supply movies, music, and software to consumers -- it has become legitimized and institutionalized -- and that dependency will hurt it in the long run.

I am in Bangkok now. Here on Khao San Road I can get a diploma from any university I want, a press pass, a student ID, a Driver's License, etc. Hmmm, I am thinking that a press pass and a student ID for hostel discounts (Professor Travis) might just do the trick for me . . .

Monday, January 7, 2008

Some random Chiang Mai memories

Well, Dave and I are leaving Chiang Mai for Bangkok tomorrow but we will never forget our wonderful time here.

What makes Thailand so special is the warm people here. We have experienced such kindness that I am at a loss to describe our experience in words. So I wanted to just post some random memories here.