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Transportation Analysis

I plan to provide a general update, but first I thought it would be interesting to take a look at transportation in Yangon, as this has been on my mind.

First, traffic in the city has become horrendous. It is far worse than one year ago when I arrived, and it’s at the point where trying to get anywhere from the hours of 8am-8pm (particularly on week days) has become quite a process. Commute times vary wildly, with the same route one day taking 20 minutes and the next day taking 90. A friend took a taxi to the airport which was 3 hours one day (he missed his flight) and 1 hour the following day (same time but Friday the first day and Saturday the second day).

Second, I’m spending more money than I’d like on taxis (on a daily basis), and it’s starting to add up. My daily expenditures (everything except rent), comes to about $20, and on a given day taxi expenditures could be anywhere from $5.00-$10.00. For instance, yesterday I had a lunch meeting downtown ($3.00-$3.50 each way) and then went to a restaurant with friends (another $3.00 — I only paid one way).

Third, negotiating taxis on a daily basis for the last year has started to wear on me. It’s not a matter of just hailing a taxi and jumping in. Each time requires the song and dance of throwing a number or countering the driver’s offer, then having to try and convince why that number makes sense, and argue over whether or not there will be traffic, and then dealing with the emotional reaction of regularly getting offered inflated numbers (and thinking back on the deal after it has been agreed upon).

So how does one get around? Here are the options:

  1. Taxis: Most expensive, negotiation required, fastest option.
  2. Buses: Unstructured (pick-up times? routes?), longer commutes, cheap.
  3. Bicycle: Dangerous, frustrating (at drivers), but fast and cheap.
  4. Walking: Sweaty, dangerous, limited range, but most reliable option, and cheap.

I had been using a bike for shorter commutes (I tried longer ones but it was too dicey), but the bike is out of commission now, so I may need to get a new one. In lieu of that, I’ve been walking more, but that is very slow. Today, I made an attempt at the buses, which is something I’m debating if I should do more of. It’s super cheap (between 10-30 cents for any distance — based on bus quality), but it slows the commute down, and you have deal with the crowds of people and the uncertainty of which bus goes where and at what time (and where the bus stops are, which appear only to be demarcated based on a loosely formed group of people standing at the side of the road). To get from downtown to my apartment, it cost me about $0.20 and took about 1.5 hours (a taxi would have cost $3.00-$3.50 and probably have taken between 45 minutes and 1 hour).

Here is a map of most of the lower half of Yangon with pricing (the downtown spots have gone up by about $0.50 given traffic).

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Here’s a chart to show that prices (based on my negotiations) seems non-linear. That is, it’s more expensive to go shorter distances than longer ones (on a per-mile basis), which is also frustrating in the negotiation process.

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Here’s the value proposition of taking buses:

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This is a cooler-looking bus (I heard it’s one of the handed-down buses from Japan — model circa 1970s):

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Health Insurance

As I am no longer a company employee, I had to figure out independent health insurance. Fortunately I have a couple friends who also live here in Myanmar who were able to tell me about a company that provides coverage both in the U.S. and abroad. I have been told that it would probably be cheaper in the long-run to just self-insure (e.g. Thailand apparently has world-class healthcare and a week-long stay in a hospital, on drip, may be ~$1,000 from what I hear) or receive abroad-only insurance. With that said, in the event that serious illness occurs, it would be nice to be able to head back to the U.S. for treatment (in addition to being covered during trips to the U.S.)

To that end, I have decided to use GeoBlue (https://www.geobluetravelinsurance.com). The benefit is that GeoBlue offers access to the Blue Cross Blue Shield network in the U.S., in addition to offering coverage abroad. Unfortunately, gathering all the documents together for the past two year’s of medical coverage was a bit of a hassle (delayed my enrollment process by about 7 weeks) , but with that done things should be good to go.

For $331 per month, I get coverage in the U.S. and abroad:

  • U.S. In-Network: $1,000 deductible
  • U.S. Out-Network: $2,000 deductible
  • Outside U.S.: $500 deductible
  • Coinsurance: $4,000

Here are some more details:

  • Unlimited annual and lifetime medical maximum
  • Deductible waived for office visits with doctors
  • No waiting period or sublimit for preventive services
  • No precertification penalty for inpatient or outpatient care
  • Pre-existing conditions covered with creditable coverage
  • Illnesses and injuries related to terrorism are covered

Here is the full policy info: https://www.geobluetravelinsurance.com/pdf_docs/certs/samples/SAMPLE_XplorerPremier_0008.pdf

Xplorer Premium actually had four plan options. If you’re interested in my thought-process, I’ve included some of my analysis below. It was interesting thinking through the value one should put on the concept of “feeling secure” (despite the probabilities of occurrence). Fo reference, I went with Plan 3.

Cost of four plan options based on being very sick (burning through entire co-pays) or not being sick at all:

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Three-year scenarios based on number of years being very sick (N = not sick / S = very sick):

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Plan comparison factoring in different region co-pays and coinsurance:

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For a point of comparison, I did look into Aetna International, which is what I was covered with under Proximity. Unfortunately, it turns out that despite this coverage, they actually don’t offer individual plans for people living in Myanmar.

Visiting the American Embassy

I attended a town hall meeting tonight at the American Embassy in Yangon. It was pretty cool to enter the compound, and I sort of felt like I was back on American soil. I had a chance to hear from a few members of the administration, including the American Ambassador, Derek Mitchell (who started July 2012 – the first American ambassador here in Myanmar in 22 years).

Here are a few points:

  • The #1 challenge for Myanmar is national reconciliation (e.g. national ceasefire among ethnic communities and Muslim/Buddhist tensions), and the American administration has been working to help in the reform process
  • National elections, coming up in November, is also a major topic
  • The reputation of America here in Myanmar is very high

I know many of you are concerned with safety, so here are some points on that:

  • The American Embassy is not expecting major (evacuation-level) violence
  • There is someone on staff specifically focused on potential hot spots where danger could crop up during the elections
  • Assisted evacuation will be provided if commercial flights aren’t running
  • The American Embassy is employing a warden system (10 in Yangon and 3 spread out across the country), in which each American citizen will be assigned to a warden (by geography) as a point of contact in case any issues arise or if anyone becomes disconnected during conflict. To be assigned, citizens need to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) via the State Department’s website (https://step.state.gov/step/)

Again, the American Embassy isn’t expecting any major issues, but they do have protocols in place in case something is to arise.

Back from Rakhine

This is my first post since departing for the U.S., and since returning to Myanmar about a week ago I spent the last week in the western province, called Rakhine State, to assess business opportunities.

The blue dot is the general area (a screenshot I took from my phone’s GPS when I was there):

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I spent a day in Thandwe, which is a seaside town where Ngapali Beach is located (the nicest beach in Myanmar from what I’ve heard). Unfortunately it was a bit stormy when we were there.

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Thandwe is quite a small city, if you could even call it that. The lush greens were pretty incredible.

Here’s a view from the front and back of our friend’s house:

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City center and market:

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View from hotel lobby:

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The whole place had a jungle feel to it.

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From there we went to Sittwe, which was the focus area for our business analysis. Sittwe is the capital of Rakhine State, and is a coastal town where fishing takes place.

Definitely a bigger place than Thandwe. Here is a picture of the city center:

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We spent some time outside the city as well. Here is the main road in a village we visited to speak with farmers:

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Farm equipment is in need due to labor shortages. You can see this is not the highest quality machine:

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Solar panels:

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Speaking with farmers about their needs:

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Back in Sittwe, we also had a chance to speak with government officials and local businesses. Overall, everyone was very welcoming with regard to doing business in Sittwe. Although there are many NGOs, we were told that we were the first American or European businessmen to speak with city officials about doing business there (so far, apparently it has been South Koreans and Chinese).

There appears to be a big need for development in Sittwe, and everyone we spoke to was very enthusiastic about having us do business there. This applied to doing business with both Rakhine and Muslim communities.

So now, in Yangon, I am spending some time debriefing and processing the trip. I will be putting together a report for the organization that wrote me a business visa as well as continue to consider potential avenues for next steps.

New “Reflection” Posted (after a 6 month hiatus)

Hi everyone,

I just posted a big “Month 10” reflection under the “Reflections” section of the website. It’s an inwardly focused piece that I wrote to help me reflect and provide transparency to those interested. Here’s a shortcut: Month 10: Deep Reflection

The cliff notes version? Basically, I’m exploring short-term consulting opportunities here in Myanmar to buy me some time before I figure out where I will be longer term. It’s undecided where exactly that will be. I’m also taking a deeper dive into Christianity, particularly as it pertains to my faith.

I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends in the U.S. soon (I’ll be landing in the U.S. this Saturday and will be back for two weeks).

Hope you’re all doing well.

Some important updates

It’s been some time since I’ve posted, and a lot has occurred. I don’t want to belabor this post, but I want to touch on some important areas (I have bolded the main points).

First, as most of you know, my grandmother recently passed away. She was an incredible grandmother who was fundamental to my fantastic upbringing without a mother. From the after-school pick-ups, to purchasing a boat on the pond so I could go fishing, to the big smile that always greeted me when I opened the door to the tranquility of gram’s house.

I wrote a poem for my grandmother’s funeral, which I will share here:

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To be honest, I wrestled quite a bit with whether or not to return home for the funeral. My closest friends here have also faced similar situations; one of the tradeoffs of working on the opposite side of the world.

But with that said, I have booked my flights for my return trip in August. I will be landing in the U.S. on August 15th (Saturday) and will be leaving the U.S. on August 29th (Saturday). I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone.

On the work front, for those who have not heard, I have concluded my work with Proximity Designs and left the organization as of last week. I need to be careful in what I share publicly (out of respect and confidentiality), but at a high level, essentially most of the decision boiled down to two core areas: 1) My inability (whether my fault, the organization’s, or both) to drive improvements in the relative short-term that I felt were critical for the long-term success of Proximity (and the uncertainty of how long it would take to accomplish these items, if at all possible), and 2) A growing inclination that donor-funded financing models may not be the best long-term solution for serving needs that can be addressed with fully market-based solutions (I’m, admittedly, still wrestling with this point).

I am speaking selectively with other organizations about short-term consulting contracts here in Myanmar to buy me some time before committing to a longer-term engagement. I still need time to discern, both geographically and industry-based, where my next step will be. To that end, I’m hoping to do a) Soul-Searching (where do I want to develop my career), b) Praying (where can I best flourish using the gifts that God has given me), and c) Market Research (where are the opportunities where (a) and (b) overlap).

In other news, as I know how much you’ve all enjoyed staying up to date on my gastrointestinal health (haha), here’s the latest addition to the lineup:

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Goodbye parasites!

Apparently you are supposed to take this deworming medication every 6 months. It’s been 10 months, and I’ve been having another bout of stomach issues, so I figure it’s best to rule this out as an issue and take a dose of this stuff (I hear it’s pretty commonly taken here and in the third world in general).

I’ll be honest, my digestive system has been put through the ringer. This has been perhaps the largest unforeseen challenge in moving to Myanmar.

Finally, last weekend I attended the Proximity annual retreat (the last hurrah before my departure) which was a trip to Bagan (I visited Bagan once before and shared about the experience in an earlier post).

Pit stop at Mt. Popa:

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Nature + Temples in Bagan:

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One of my friends who performed at the Proximity talent show:

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