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Chalk Wall 2.0

Taiei and I had time to work on the chalk wall tonight. We set up a projector and filled in the letters. Exciting to see it completed! Check it out:

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Also had a great dinner tonight. Simple (but delicious) pasta, and fresh vegetables and herbs from Shan state arrived today (the fresh basil was part of the delivery).

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First Piece of Mail (yes, separate from the last post!)

So today when I got back to my apartment I had received a letter from my aunt that is dated 1/9/15 (today is 1/21/15 in Yangon. Not bad!

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Thanks, Aunt Marlene!

Also, tonight I attempted Parmesan risotto. Wasn’t a terrible first try. I realized earlier this week after yet another lunch of plain fried eggs and white rice that I need to start branching out and building more of a culinary repertoire.

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First Package

Today at the office I was handed a slip of paper and was told that it means I have a package being held at the post office. Walt, I think this is the cable you sent me via USPS (thanks for sending!).

Apparently if it is sent through the standard mail system then something like this note is delivered and a pick up is required, whereas if I third party delivery service (such as DHL) is used, they will make the delivery to the location given that they have an independent network.

This is a great experiment, and I’m looking forward to seeing if the package arrived in one piece. I was told from one of my Burmese colleagues that papers and magazines usually make it through but that if it is something more expensive then sometimes it gets “lost” in the system (a colleague from Australia said that a DVD she was sent for her birthday was “lost”).

Apparently there is only one post office (downtown), and I heard that they still use paper ledgers. I just need to find a time to make it there between 9:30am and 2:30pm Monday-Friday.

Here’s a picture of the slip I received:

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On a separate note, I’ve been loving the Shan vegetables that we’ve received. You can see in this picture that last night I sautéed some eggplant and fennel, as well as prepared a salad, a homemade honey vinaigrette, and some multigrain bread (I bought the bread). It was delicious!

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Building Furniture, Frying Fish

Most of the furniture in our apartment (and most of the Apartment itself) was built, designed, and/or remodeled by us (mostly Taiei and David, the two Stanford engineers who originally found and set up the apartment).

So with that, Taiei decided to design and build a TV stand for our apartment. Fortunately for me, I got a chance to help out and see (and document!) some of the process. It was a lot of fun getting into the mix and experiencing the satisfaction of having helped produce a finished piece.

Here is Taiei at the schematics:

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Two of the design team members offered to help as well. Here is Taiei providing some direction:

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Made of solid sheets of metal, the stand had to be welded together piece by piece. Fortunately, we had a master welder helping us:

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We then used electric wire brushes to smooth out the surfaces (Taiei had previously wire-brushed all the medal to polish it):

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Unfortunately we had to deal with flying metal. You can see one of the metal fibers that shot into my shorts, and another that grazed my arm:

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After polishing with the wire brush and wiping down all the surfaces with paint thinner, we applied urethane to prevent the metal from rusting:

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We were excited as the piece neared the finish line:

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We also had enough leftover material to make a separate box that we may mount in the kitchen:

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There is a cool pattern that emerged from brushing the metal:

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In addition to experimenting at the workshop, we also had a chance to experiment in the kitchen. We bought a fish from a local market and attempted to filet it (Taiei was banking on his Japanese genetics; I was referencing my cookbook, How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman):

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We also bought some prawns (again, Taiei took the lead on prep):

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We’ve been getting some fresh organic vegetables delivered to us from Shan State up in the north of the country. They are incredible. Here is a picture of the beats:

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Here are some of the final dishes (we decided to prepare the fish two ways: 1) with rosemary, and 2) battered. The second picture below shows the former):

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Finally, I wanted to mention that I had a chance to meet up with colleagues last weekend. We went outside of the city to a friend’s house. It was nice being able to spend time with friends in a tranquil environment.

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Back to Work & Running

This was my first week back to work. I feel pretty much over jet lag. I spent most of this week preparing for a meeting Friday with a visiting Harvard professor who was able to provide critical feedback on the future direction I had proposed. Although the concept went over well, the rate of Myanmar’s grid expansion is a big question mark, which makes risk analysis challenging.

On Saturday Taiei and I went to a mall to check out some furniture. Now, this is not your typical Western-style mall. Think of this more as an outdoor or street market stuffed into a huge building. It reminded me of the local shopping in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

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We also went to a very cool place called Helping Hands, which takes reclaimed furniture and turns it into modern pieces and also helps and trains individuals who they employ. We bought this cutting board, which is an interesting shape ($22 and made of teak wood — after cutting it they rubbed olive oil over it as a natural stain. I was surprised that it stayed that color after washing it):

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Finally, we picked up a TV this weekend so that we can watch movies at our apartment.

Today, I ran in the YOMA Yangon International Marathon. To be clear, I didn’t actually run a marathon. I was signed up to run the 10K, but due to the fact that I hadn’t had a chance to train, I decided to step it down to the 3K (“Fun Run”). I really enjoyed it given that many of the folks from Proximity were running that distance as well.

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Finally, I thought I’d add a new element to this post and share two of my current favorite songs:

“Make Peace” by Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau (the link will take you to Youtube)

N°084 by relaxdaily (the link will take you to soundcloud)

Back in Yangon

Last night I made it back to Yangon (safe and sound!). I wanted to write up something to post, but I was pretty burnt out from the journey and wanted to try and get some sleep to pull myself back into Yangon time.

I had a few realizations this time as I traveled back to Yangon that I wanted to share.

First, it’s incredible how much shorter the flight gets each time I take it. The ~20 hours of fly time went by in a breeze. Sleeping for about 10 of those hours doesn’t hurt, and then I filled the rest with movies (The Equalizer, Lucy, The Giver, and The Book of Life), plane meals, and chatting with others.

Second, with each journey I start to feel more like a “global citizen.” I know that is kind of cliché, but the world really starts to feel smaller with each trip. One moment I’m in the U.S. speaking English, then I am in Seoul saying hello in Korean (I met a new friend on the way there who offered to meet up if I am ever in Seoul), and then getting off in Yangon and sliding back into my Burmese.

Third, the underdevelopment of Myanmar really hit me this time. JFK Airport is nice, but the airport at Seoul really steps it up. Soon after stepping off the plane, the hallway is lined with large high-res pictures of gourmet dishes from Korea. A bit further and you step into what feels like a huge shopping center that happens to have airport terminals. There is very clean feel to everything, the shops are doused in dazzling LEDs, the people are dressed in hip new styles, and you can drink water from the drinking fountains.

Stepping off the plane in Myanmar, the first thing that hits me is the smell. It’s not necessarily a bad smell, but it is something I have now come to associate with underdevelopment (I think it’s basically the must of old stuff). The carpets are aged and signs are unevenly lit. The people though are so warm (not to say they aren’t in other places, but it just stands out in Myanmar). Even the Immigration officer spent extra time explaining my visas to me when I asked.

To be honest, when I got back to my apartment last night, it made me think. The stark contrast between the locations was jarring, and there are fundamental tradeoffs between living and working in a third world country (Myanmar) versus one of the most technologically advanced (Korea). But I have also realized the importance of looking beyond the veneer. As I have mentioned in previous posts, there is a deeper mission that drives me to Myanmar and the work I do here (using my skillset to help improve the quality of life of those in an underdeveloped nation, and having the opportunity to do business in a country made particularly unique at this point in time due to its history and progression toward an open economy/society).

I have saved the pictures for the end of this post, which I’ve included here:

Here is a picture of the Proximity Energy team during sales training (most of the people are field sales staff):

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Here is a picture from Target in Windsor (I believe it’s from Christmas Eve). It’s been a while since I’ve seen completed wiped out stock:

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Here is a picture of the cards that I brought back from Myanmar and wrapped:

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Christmas lunch with the Zaffetti’s:

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Using a Sun King Pro 2 (that I bought for my dad for Christmas) as we build a grill (this is the same light that we have started selling to the rural population in Myanmar):

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Here is my flight path from New York to Seoul:

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JFK Airport (I wish I had taken a picture of the Seoul airport as well):

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Yangon International Airport:

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A new stainless steel fry pan that I got for Christmas (thanks Dad!) — the black one is the previous one I had been using:

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Month 3: Catching the Wind

This is the last post before I return to the U.S. for Christmas and New Year’s (Merry Christmas to everyone!). I am going to use this post as my third reflection piece.

I draw upon sailing for the theme of this third reflection (although, unfortunately, I have yet to go sailing here). It took me some time to get my sea legs (and I got “sea sick”) but then I had a chance to try and figure out how to turn the boat in and out of the wind and shift the boom in order to make progress. This last month I’ve been “catching the wind” as I move forward through the water.

On the work front I’ve been able to bring together the work I’ve done over the past few months in order to recommend a go-forward strategy for the team. Having the flexibility to put this together, and touch base with others in the organization on it, was great. My recommendation is a new path for the organization, but an exciting one. It has been incredible to be on the cutting edge of rural development though providing access to energy.

Outside the office I have been getting more settled into my apartment, cooking, and getting some exercise. My health has much improved (to be honest, I did throw up last weekend, but it was because I was sprinting around with a bunch of kids from an orphanage and am so out of shape!).

My Burmese continue to improve, with the help of many of my colleagues and the locals here. Some people at the office have asked me to start teaching them English more formally.

At Church, I have met a few people, which it would be great to expand upon to continue building community at the parish. Through my roommate, Taiei, I have met other Christians from the church he attends (Yangon New Life Church). Through these people I have been able to participate in more things. For example, these pictures are from a Christmas party arranged for children at an orphanage run by one of the members of Yangon New Life Church (the kids did some performances, which was awesome, and they also got gifts):

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Here are a couple pictures from the office (taken by one of the employees, Kyaw Ko Ko, who was using my camera). The first picture is of the head of the design team (Geoff), and the second is of me at my desk.

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That’s all for now. Hoping to see many of you back in the U.S. for Christmas and New Year’s!

Art, Remodeling, & the King & Queen of Norway

The apartment walls have been calling for some artwork, so Taiei (my roommate) and I ventured out to try and figure out the art scene in Yangon (which is actually pretty sophisticated). After going to two of the better known galleries, we felt that we had a good handle on the more well-known artists and their styles.

Pansodan Gallery was our first stop:

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We then went to Nawaday Tharlar Gallery, which seemed like a great hub for the creative arts in general:

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We found an artist named Tamalar, which we both really liked. We even got to meet him!

We were pretty excited about these two pieces (unfortunately each one is $1,000):

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We also found this one by a different artist, which we thought was cool (unfortunately it was priced at $700):

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Although art can be looked at as an investment, I don’t think we have the risk tolerance (or the energy) to fully understand the market and make the investment.

HOWEVER, we did do some remodeling to the apartment. We decided to take a white wall in the kitchen and turn it into a huge chalkboard!

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Before:

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After:

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We are supposed to let it cure for a few days, but we are excited to try it out! Luckily Taiei used to work for a painter when he was in high school in Japan.

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Here is the wall in progress:

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We have also been trying to clean the apartment. It was hilarious (and a bit scary) the other day watching Taiei  try to clean the window in our living room (three floors up!).

Here’s the view down:

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Nerves of steel!

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On the work front, Proximity had a booth at a Green Energy event that was scheduled around a visit by the king and queen of Norway. The king gave a speech in the morning at Yangon University.

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Here’s the building from the outside:

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This appears to be the school’s crest (“With Truth and Loyalty”):

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In the afternoon, we went over to the event to help set up and man the booth. The Proximity Media team did a great job designing and displaying the info:

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Here are a few pictures of me speaking with the king of Norway about rural electrification:

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Here’s a picture of the Proximity Energy Team!

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Things continue to go well on the food front.

Here is another meal made by my Thai friend’s mother and aunt (the main dish is called khao soi):

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I also went to a Japanese restaurant with Taiei the other day. I took a leap of faith eating both raw fish and raw vegetables. Fortunately I was fine!

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That’s all for today. I hope everyone is well!

Good Food

As many of you know, I have been trying hard to eat more home-cooked meals. As a result, I have 1) not had food-related illnesses, and 2) have been eating great meals!

A burmese friend and I made this simple meal one night (fried rice with eggs, egg noodles, and vegetable & tofu stir fry):

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One night I decided to make pasta with tomato sauce and carrots, and I also baked oatmeal cookies:

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You can see that leftovers work well in my lunch box, which I take to the office (the container on the right is persimmons):

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Here is one of my Thai friends, and her mother and aunt (who cooked a traditional Thai meal for us — they brought ingredients from Thailand when they flew into Myanmar earlier that day!):

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Here is Thanksgiving dinner at the house of the couple that leads Proximity Designs. It was one of the top meals (if not the best) I’ve had since being in  Myanmar:

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My plate is so buried in food that you probably can’t make out the different items (it includes turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes, stuffing, salad, gravy, and Burmese duck — I had two servings of pumping pie and ice cream for dessert!):

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“Conflict and candlelight: Myanmar’s energy conundrum”

I was just sent this article today from someone at Proximity. It provides some insight into the energy issue here in Myanmar:

http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/asean/445129/conflict-and-candlelight-myanmar-energy-conundrum

When a village in the conflict-torn hills of eastern Myanmar was asked to pay authorities more than $10,000 to plug into an electricity grid, families put themselves in debt to find the cash.

Ten months later children there are still squinting over their homework by candlelight and dinners are cooked on open fires as the work to connect their homes to power lies unfinished, beset by delays and bureaucracy.

Roughly 70 percent of Myanmar’s population still does not have access to power, so the once pariah state, which already relies on hydropower to generate half of its electricity, is again turning to its rivers in new plans to harness energy from dams.

But as it rushes to plug the power gap, activists warn of worsening tensions in ethnic minority border areas, where such projects have long brought bloodshed and upheaval — but little energy.

Back in Saw La Yar Koo village, eastern Kayah state, residents are losing patience. Sitting under the soot-blacked ceiling of her living room in the faltering glow of the cooking fire, 24-year-old Pi Rar feels cheated.

“If we had electricity, we could cook with it, could use computers and the children could study at night. I attended a computer course but I couldn’t practise at home without power,” she said.

– ‘Conflict multipliers’ –

On the dusty track outside her house, where farmers drive bullock carts past simple wooden stilt homes, a gleaming transformer sits idly after villagers say cash-strapped authorities asked each family to stump up another $350 to install electricity.

“I had to borrow half of the 80,000 kyats (the initial payment of $80) from a moneylender… They (local authorities) say we have to pay more to connect the cables to the houses,” Pi Rar told AFP.

The costs are likely to push this corn farming village into further debt just as it hopes to reap the rewards of a tentative peace deal in the state after years of bloody civil war.

Myanmar has promised access to electricity for 50 percent of its population by 2020 and for all by 2030, as it clambers to reduce poverty and remain viable for the businesses piling into the former junta-ruled land.

Hydropower looks set to dominate. A string of major dams is planned along the Salween River, which courses from China down through the mountainous territories of eastern Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities.

But reliance on dams is deeply controversial as many projects stand in areas wracked by ethnic conflict where troops and landmines have often been deployed to guard large infrastructure projects against rebel attack.

Kayah activists fear Lawpita, Myanmar’s first hydropower project, could be the bloody blue-print for the country’s future dams.

Thousands were displaced by the project, which now provides around a quarter of the country’s hydropower capacity, and activists say a spike in soldiers stirred conflict and incidents of forced labour, land confiscation and sexual violence.

– Rising energy demand –

Dams are “conflict multipliers, which are not very helpful” as the country struggles to negotiate an end to more than half a century of civil wars in its ethnic borderlands, said Elliot Brennan, research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy.

He said planned projects, including one in Kayah and a massive dam upstream in southern Shan state by the Chinese Three Gorges company, largely feed the demand for energy in China’s Yunnan province.

What electricity does stay in Myanmar has long been unevenly distributed.

Energy is routinely siphoned from resource rich minority areas to power the cities of Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw in the heartland of Myanmar’s Bamar majority.

This has caused deep resentment.

“What we have in our state — we should have a share. But electricity from Kayah goes to other places. Most government projects are like that,” said Burma Rivers Network researcher Mi Reh.

In a surprise snub to long-term ally Beijing, President Thein Sein suspended the Chinese-backed $3.6 billion Myitsone dam in northern Kachin state in 2011 after strong environmental concerns from the public, as clashes also broke out with local rebels over the project, ending a 17-year ceasefire.

Yet Beijing and Myanmar recently agreed to establish an electricity cooperation committee to keep future projects on track, as part of deals from China worth around $7.8 billion.

For now even Myanmar’s main cities are beset by power cuts, prompting several waves of candle-lit street protests since the end of military rule in 2011.

In Kayah much of the energy comes from Lawpita, but local electricity authorities admit that while the state provides more than 200 megawatts to the national grid, it gets just 15MW.

Unsurprisingly, torches and solar panels are still hot sellers at Demoso market, where people from the hilly region near Pi Rar’s village flock to shop.

Teens in punk rock t-shirts swagger past the statuesque women of the Padaung tribe, their necks ringed with tall brass coils, as Nay Soe sells his solar panels for up to 100,000 kyat ($100).

He has noticed a slight slowdown in sales as reforms in recent years brought an uptick in energy access, but does not believe new state schemes will put him out of business any time soon.

“It won’t be within the next 20 years,” he said.

[Bangkok Post – http://www.bangkokpost.com]