Sunday, July 19, 2015

Looking ahead

At the end of this post, I alluded to potential change on the horizon. At that time, I was one month deep in an investigative and list-making frenzy, mulling over a possible career change that would take me back to Porto Alegre, Brazil in mid-2015. A colleague who oversees an international school approached me with the opportunity to start a development office: the possibilities seemed almost overwhelming.

Here we are. I leave tomorrow. 

It is vastly more difficult to leave Chicago this time around, though. As enthusiastic as I am for the new position and returning to my old pals, I felt really settled in Chicago. I had an apartment I loved in a perfect and central location; the good fortune of working for an institution and a boss that I admired; and an interesting and diverse circle to share great food, wine and repartee. 

On the other hand, I will have all of those things in Porto Alegre too. 

Maybe I just feel more rigid at 41 than I was at 33. Figuring that's the case, it's a good thing I'm opting in on this adventure. I want to be malleable, adaptable. I want to continue to change, to expand. Throwing my life in a blender is the quickest (though not painless) way to achieve that. 

I will try to document thoughts and anecdotes on this site with some frequency (though I won't have as much free time as I did during my last expat adventure). Encouragement and feedback is most welcome: email link is on the left.

Looking ahead,


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Analysis Paralysis

When I arrived in BKK two days ahead of schedule, I wasn't sure what to do. Should I try to add more nights to my hostel reservation? I doubted they'd have availability last-minute during high season. Should I ask for a flight to Chiang Mai and squeeze in a quick visit? Should I hop on a shuttle bus to Hua Hin (a popular weekend beach for locals)? I couldn't connect for my 20 minutes of free wifi in the airport, so I couldn't investigate options online. I asked at the official tourism department's hotel reservations desk, but prices seemed high. 

What to do? What to do? 

I headed for the Novotel desk. Novotel is part of the Accor Hotel chain. Because I have traditionally been a hostel-type rather than a hotel-type, brand names and loyalty programs never mattered. However, in recent years, I have always booked myself into the same hotel when I visit Porto Alegre--the Mercure on Rua Jardim Cristófel--which is how I got into the Accor Hotel loyalty program. Now, when I must stay in a hotel, I try to at least make it an Accor brand so that I collect points for the money spent. This makes the higher accommodation cost easier to swallow. Since I seem to be in transitional years, more frequently opting to stay in hotels guesthouses than hostels, those points might lead to some rewards. 

I rambled around through BKK, trying to find the Novotel desk. I had been there during my layover stay at the Novotel airport location one week prior, but it took me a while to find it again! I asked if they had a free shuttle to their city center locations: I fugured I could get a free ride into the city, ask about reservation prices, and if they were too high, go elsewhere. Alas, no shuttle. 

I could hardly get in a taxi without a destination. 

On the lower floor of the airport, while scanning the recesses of my brain for clever options, I see a massage hut. "Free wifi," the sign says. I wander over. A gentleman shows me a menu of services. One-hour neck, shoulders, and back massage: 400 Baht (about US$12). 


It was a nice treat, although the old woman was a bit of a honey badger. She really dug in and I'd be feeling tender days. Mission accomplished, though. In spite of her forceful kneading, I managed to book two nights at the Novotel Siam Square for a reasonable rate through the Accor site. I had another three nights reserved at the Lub d Silom hostel. Shortly after checking in, I realized that I wouldn't want to downgrade to a dorm bunk after two nights in the hotel, no matter how nice Lub d appeared. The Novotel was pricier for the sunsequent evenings. Instead, I booked three nights at another Accor brand, the Mercure Bangkok Siam, just 3 malls up the road, and canceled the hostel. 

Sometimes you rough it, and sometimes you don't. The key is in knowing how to choose. 

I was really impressed by the Novotel. It is a 4-star, so not the Four Seasons or Sofitel, but not remotely shabby. Still, for the price I paid, I figured that rating might be sorta "on its best day." The lobby was grand, with lots of lounge space and a nice bar. There is a café/bakery on the ground floor, a few fine dining options on the second floor, a nightclub on the lower level, and a pool (with a bar) on a 4th floor rooftop section. My room was on the seventh floor. It was nice. Spacious, bright, comfortable. A nice view of the Siam Paragon if you looked to the right. I wished I could stay all five nights.

Something strange happened those first hours in Bangkok: I was so overwhelmed by the stimulation of Siam Square (flashing lights, video, audio... colors, sound, people, activity), that I couldn't move. The place was so unlike anything I've seen that I didn't know where to look. I didn't know what I wanted to see, to do, to eat. I was even feeling intimidated about navigating the Sky Train--conquering public transit isn't something I've struggled with in a strange city before. 

"I'll go to the pool," I thought. I can handle the pool. 

What do you know? It was "Sunset Hour!" From 4-6pm daily they have 2-for-1 Absolute cocktails (250 Baht, or US$8). I'll have a Naughty Lychee and a Coconut Sunrise, please.  

After two fruity drinks and a little sun, I felt I should get my act togeother and go do something. I ventured across the street, to Siam Paragon. 

You should know, if you don't already, that I am not a mall person. I don't like to shop. I don't concern myself with fashion, designers, or the like. It is sometimes interesting, though, to browse a mall while traveling to see what it's like, and the Siam Paragon is not your average mall. 

Siam Paragon is a very large, high-end mall: Cartier, Prada, Chanel. There are luxury car dealerships in the corridors. 

There is an aquarium in the basement. 

But what thrilled me was the Ground Floor (one below the Main Floor). Every type of cuisine and price point imaginable: from fast food (KFC, McDonald's, Cinnabon, Au Bon Pain, even Chicago's own Garrett's Popcorn!), to dine-in (steak houses, Thai, Italian, Japanese, etc). There are cafeteria style options, and numerous "take away" vendors (cupcakes, baguettes and pastries, sandwiches, pre-made meals). And then there's the giant "Gourmet Market." It's like Treasure Island, Whole Foods, Mariano's and all of the import goods stores in your state combined. They have everything. It boggles the mind. 

As I worked my way through the aisles, slowly, and in the same stupor that all the bright lights initiated earlier, I ended up in the supermarket's "fine dining OR take away" section (not to be confused with the fine dining restaurants or take away counters outside the market!). It's like Eataly on steroids. They have everything. Pick a steak, some duck perhaps, a lobster, oysters or a nice salmon, maybe some linguini or a mushroom bisque--whatever your little heart desires. Have a seat and we'll prepare that for you. Or not. (It's sushi. Or it's tartar.) Or you'd like to prepare it yourself.  

There were just so many options. Everything looked so tasty, so nice. I couldn't decide. 
So I bought two little "bread things" -- one naan-type thing with chicken and one spinach and cheese roll, a couple beers, a little chocolate and went to back to the hotel. 

I really would've liked to have tried something there.... but which?! How could I possibly choose? What, look at a menu?! Are you mad? 

I couldn't handle Bangkok any more. I needed to sleep. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

y'all ain't goin' to Yangon

During the 45 minute taxi ride from the airport to the Humble Footprints Hostel, I was moderately intrigued by the city. There was some ugly, some charm, some pleasant surprise to the landscape. 

I checked into the hostel in the early afternoon. The room was clean. The bed was comfortable. That's the good news. 

The bathrooms smelled like mold. The shower heads were mounted in oversized toilet stalls so the seats were often soaked, as were the floors. Not surprisingly, the cubicles reeked of mold. There were no power outlets in the rooms. The "kitchen" was a dirty-ish and peculiar back area (one couldn't call it a room), that was sparsely equipped. And the smartphone/device-addiction that addles many of us (myself included at times) seemed to absolutely destroy any notion of interaction and spontaneous fun among travelers--not that the lifeless atmosphere really promoted it anyway. 

I went out for a long walk, past the Shwedagon Pagoda. (I entered the gardens, but not the pagoda itself. I was saving that for today.) My objective was dinner in Chinatown, which I had heard good things about. 

Walking in Yangon is nearly impossible. I love to explore new places on foot, but it's not wise in Yangon. Being a pedestrian in Brazil is a challenge: in Yangon it is lethal. Even where major roadways intersect there are no crosswalks or pedestrian lights. (To be fair, I saw a few--like 3, in a couple hours of walking, and it's not like those were observed.) You step off the curb and into your own personal game of frogger, with 6 lanes of traffic ahead of you. You just cross one lane at a time and hope for the best. 

By the time I arrived at Chinatown, I was thoroughly turned off by the city. I had been breathing a noxious mixture of smells--like spoiled meat, gutter sludge, mold, vehicle exhaust, and heat--all mixed together. It was, frankly, horrible. 

Chinatown made it worse. Much worse. Yangon's Chinatown is famed for its blocks of narrow streets, crowded with market stalls and street food. I saw that there were a few food stalls down one of the streets that looked ok (i.e. safe), but it was too late. The smells from some of the street vendors (animal parts, fish, and the like sitting for a long time in the heat--ufff!), were so bad that I actually felt nauseous more than once. Now, I've been in several countries and markets where pungent odors abound. This was different. There was garbage all over the place. People urinate and defecate in corners, which feeds into this sludge of "water" often running, uncovered, along the side of the roadway. It was just nasty--plain and simple. 

I don't know exactly what neighborhood the hostel was in: surely there must be nicer parts to the city. But by that time, it wouldn't have mattered. For these and other observations, I'd had my fill of Yangon in a matter of a few hours. I wanted out. Badly. 

[It is worth calling out that I thought Mandalay was worth a day's visit. Kalaw and Bagan were absolutely worthwhile. I would come back to Myanmar to check out Inle Lake and other non-urban attractions. I would heartily recommend Myanmar to friends. Just... when it comes to Yangon...if you must fly through, get in and get out. And maybe wear a perfumed surgical mask in the interim.]

I went back to the hostel and did some quick research. At 6:30 this morning, a mere 16 hours after arriving, I was in a taxi to the airport hoping that Thai Airways could squeeze me on their first flight to Bangkok. 

Bless them, they did. No change fee. 

A seventy minute flight can make an incredible difference. While in Yangon I had sensory overload in all of the wrong ways, here I have it in all the best ways. Granted, all I have seen are the surrounds of my hotel in Siam Square, but it blew me away. The colorful lights. People and traffic everywhere--except in each others way. This city seems uber cosmopolitan, and unlike anything I've seen. 

I'm trying to tame my mad enthusiasm until I see more. Surely, today's high is also a comparative reaction to last night's disappointment, right? 

Sitting in RGN this morning, I was concerned that 5 days in Bangkok might be too much. I am not the least bit worried about that now. I can't wait to explore!


Friday, January 2, 2015

Breathtaking Bagan

On New Year's Eve, TunTun (who runs Nature Land with his wife GooGoo--these are the dumbed-down version of their names), drove me to Heho airport, about 45 minutes from Kalaw. We had a nice chat along the way about his family, his business and the huge/fast transformation in Myanmar with regard to technology. Anecdotally, he said that back in the 90s, he told his family about the new technology he heard about where you order stuff through your TV. His uncle mocked him. TunTun hadn't known the appropriate term for it--he was referring to online shopping. One day a couple years ago, TunTun's uncle wanted to buy him a present. TunTun asked for a coat from Thailand. They bought it together online but the uncle was still skeptical, until the coat arrived in the mail from Thailand a few weeks later. TunTun felt redeemed.

The conversation was a nice distraction. Truth be told, I was not looking forward to this--the first of two flights I would take with Myanmar's Air KBZ. I had read that planes were dated, pilots poorly trained, accidents statistically more frequent than "normal." 

I am happy to report that this appears to be one of the many, many examples of "facts" I'd read about Myanmar that turned out to be outdated or simply wrong. 

I'll not pretend that Heho Airport was...

[pic to follow]

...even remotely modern. But overall things went more smoothly than I had expected. The check-in counter was a podium of sorts, with a few young men behind it. While one of them wrote a checkmark on his paper printout next to my name, another wrote the flight number and date-stamped a boarding pass. The third tagged my luggage and handed to the runners who would carry the bags through the small terminal building by hand, putting them on a baggage cart out by the tarmac. The first guy handed me an Air KBZ sticker to wear on my shirt so that I could be quickly identified in the waiting area when they were rounding up passengers for boarding. 

Security equipment was rather dated, but I didn't feel like it had to be more elaborate--at least, not yet. 

While waiting for boarding to begin, people were wandering in and out of the terminal building on the tarmac side--for a cigarette break or just to get some fresh air. Unusual. 
The ATR 72-500/600 we flew was new. The flight crew was very professional and miles more pleasant their USAmerican counterparts. We departed on time and 40 minutes later we landed in Nyaung-U (nawn-you) airport. Nyaung-U is one village north of Old Bagan, which in turn is one village north of New Bagan. 

New Bagan is where I would spend New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, staying at the Kaday Aung Hotel. I was very plesantly surprised by the hotel too. It was very unique: one building was a colonial mansion-like structure, next to some thatch-roofed cottages (where I would be), with bungalow behind. There was a lovely pool and a large, covered-but-open-air dining room. I received a room upgrade to a king-size bed. The room was enormous with high ceilings, and very comfortable. The bathroom, though large, was seriously dated (which made it appear less than spotless) and quirky. The original layout included a large tub, toilet, and sink. Somewhere along the line a separate shower was added: the head mounted to the wall and a shower partition assembled in front of the tub. Entering through the shower door, the back "wall" was missing, and it was left open to the bathtub. Also, there was no drain in the shower, so there was a good slope to the floor and all of the water basically covered most of the bathroom floor on its way to the drain. Neither of was a problem--just strange. Given the icy water temp of the shower at Nature Land, the first order of business was to have a hot shower and wash my hair. Ahh. Better. 

Then I started walking down the road. A few blocks away I entered a roadside eatery, the Black Rose. After a few minutes, a blonde English girl several tables away beckoned: "Hey! It's New Year's Eve! Do you want to come eat with us?!" 

This is how I met Aran and Ben, from London. We had a nice Thai-style meal and 18 rum sours between us. We walked back to the hotel, where the staff party was in full swing. All guests had been invited to join in. Many did, and eventually the Westerners had totally hijacked the party (not that any of the locals seemed to mind). Almost everybody danced--I mean, like 95%. I felt like I was at a multicultural wedding reception. Even the grandparents danced when they played "Gangnam Style." Good times.  

Naturally I was super hungover yesterday, but I wasn't going to let that interfere with the task at hand: temple touring in Bagan

I left the hotel at 9:30 with a driver that I hired for the day for $35 (plus a tip). Ko Htay (coo-tay) was excellent. He took me to 5 temples in the morning: 


One I don't remember the name of...

All of these were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Some by nobility, some by wealthy people, some by widows. There are approximately 2,000 temples remaining though there were, at one time, many many more. 


Htilominlo (my favorite)

It is also impressive to consider, while admiring these pagodas, that there has been at least one significant earthquake that I know of, and likely others. 

Ananda (least favorite--but it's kind of a "must")

Lunch with Ko Htay. All good until I ate a mystery veg (size and firmness of a radish but purple in color. I dipped it in a homemade hot sauce as instructed and bit into it. As I withdrew it from my mouth to inspect the interior--looking for clues for identification--I saw the worms squirming inside. I spit out the bits in my mouth, gasping and trying to scrub my tongue with a napkin. I felt terrible for possibly offending Ko Htay but the reaction was completely out of my control. I freaked. Ick. Still bothers me. 

I rested for an hour back at the hotel and then we drove to Thatbyinnyu, the tallest. Many tourists go to Thatbyinnyu for the sunset because of its height, but Ko Htay took me to another temple just up the road (I don't know the name) because it also has great views of the sunset and none of the crowd. Indeed there were only about 20 of us chatting and admiring the view together. 

When I returned to the hotel around 6:30, I couldn't imagine finding the energy to walk up the road for dinner "out." I dined at the hotel, which was adequate, then retired to my room to catch up on sleep. 

In the morning I would fly (#2) to Yangon (aka Rangoon). This time, the owner of Kaday Aung would drive me to the hotel. Unaware of this, I was glad that I replied "it's great!" when he asked me what I'd thought of "that hotel." Upon hearing my review, he confessed his affiliation. We had a nice chat on the 20 minute ride to the airport. His son lives in Los Angeles so we had much to discuss. 

When we arrived at our destination, he handed Passenger Prize #2! Another calendar! This one seems quite appropriate, though, because I had rung in the new year at Kaday Aung, after all. 

Nyaung-U's terminal building is slightly nicer than Heho, which is somehow reassuring. This time, though, the flight would be a little over an hour behind schedule and a frightening older version of the same airplane. I was a little tense. 

Obviously I lived. 

Lived... just to risk death crossing the street in Yangon...